British software engineer Colin Needham’s fascination with movies began at the tender age of 5 when he won a coloring contest to see a movie in a theater. His passion with films lead him to start a diary to keep track of movies he watched and catalogue all of the details connected to its production.
The diary was transferred to Col’s home computer and he continued adding movie details. In the early ‘90s the database was available on the web called IMDb, acronym for Internet Movie Database. Amazon acquired IMDb in 1998, and has grown to become the world’s most popular source for movie, TV and celebrity information.
As a subsidiary of Amazon, IMDb has offices in Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, and Bristol. Col Needham’s office remains in Bristol, England, where he founded the business. From Amazon’s office Col met remotely with ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper to discuss IMDb and to share his enthusiastic support of the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge.
Chet Cooper: Do you typically go to Amazon’s London office?
Colin Needham: No. I have mostly been working from home for the last three years. But I’m in London today for a dinner this evening. I’m basically borrowing room in another person’s office. (laughter) I do have an office in Bristol, in the southwest of England. I am reminded that it was literally three years ago this week that the UK pandemic lockdown began. And as we all were, having to adjust to working from home, I got a lovely invite from Nic Novicki and Easterseals, to be a juror on the Disability Film Challenge.
I think the Film Challenge had already chosen Documentary as the theme for 2020. So, the first set of films was all documentaries. So many of the filmmakers made the very smart pivot to make a documentary about lockdown and the pandemic. There we all were, in our isolation, and I found myself on the jury of the Film Challenge. It was a breath of fresh air to watch the stories that had been told and to admire the creativity that had gone into each one.
Cooper: So much talent.
Needham: Yes! And all of this was in a matter of weeks. I’m trying to remember the exact timing, but I do remember it being early in the lockdown period. And despite the situation, people had come up with amazing stories to tell from a documentary perspective. It was one of my escapes out into the real world from my location all alone with my family in Bristol in the UK. It felt like this kind of global film competition with such amazing stories to tell–I was thinking, “Oh, wow, this is such an important thing and it’s so great to get these stories out there.” That first year being on the jury, then the following year I was invited back. And I was like, “Oh, I would so love to be on your jury again.” And now it’s reached the point where—I don’t know if I’m should say this, but I’d be disappointed (laughs) not to be asked. (laughs)
Cooper: (laughs) I’m sure you’ll be asked.
Needham: It’s such a good competition. I’m one of these people—oh, I’m sorry, I should let you ask some questions! Do you want me to continue down this thread? Is this OK?
Cooper: Yes, please keep going!
Needham: (laughs) OK. My all-time favorite movie quote is from the 1991 movie, “Grand Canyon” directed by Lawrence Kasdan. Steve Martin’s character says, “All of life’s riddles are answered in the movies.” The way that quote speaks to me is through seeing a film, a feature, a short, a documentary, it can take the audience member, like me on a journey to another time period, another culture, another language, another person’s experience. I’m not for one second saying that watching a film about something is the equivalent of somebody else’s experience, but it at least lets you look inside their world.
That’s one of the things that drives me about film and inspires me in terms of IMDb and the way it can help a storyteller reach their audience somewhere in the world via some technology (laughs). And even if the opportunity is to watch something only via a phone, the more people can hear and see stories from other people’s perspectives, the more understanding there will be between people. I’m a great believer in the more movies you see, the better the world gets. But I genuinely believe that.
So, to participate in the Disability Film Challenge is such a great honor from that perspective and gives me the chance to hear stories from people throughout the disability community. That’s why I found it great. So sorry! Now you can ask me a question! (laughter)
Cooper: Staying on the theme of what Nic has developed, have you also heard of the Focus on Ability Short Film Festival out of Australia?
Needham: I have not heard about them. [quickly looking for somewhere to note that down]
Cooper: You could go to ABILITY Magazine and read our interview with Jess Orcsik about the making of Focus on Ability. She’s from a legendary acting family in Australia. They helped create it, the festival reaches millions in multiple countries.
Cooper: I wanted to dig a little bit into your younger years, you’ve always had a love for film, and you started this when you were 14?
Needham: Yes! (laughs) Yeah! I could talk for hours, so I’ll keep it kind of focused and short and to the point. Essentially, I’ve been obsessed with film since I saw my first movie in a theater when I was five years old. I’d won a coloring competition in the local newspaper, and the prize was two tickets to go see a movie. I went along and I fell in love with film. From that point on, all I wanted to do was to see more movies.
Cooper: What was the movie?
Needham: The movie was a re-release of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
Cooper: You were five years old?
Needham: Yeah. there’s a little funny twist to this story, so I might as well tell you now. I was staying with my grandmother and she said, “Hey, would you like to enter a coloring competition.” I don’t even know if five-year-old me understood what that was, but the local newspaper printed a scene from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” with no colors. I did my best to color between the lines, and I won! It’s so funny, my mother keeps everything. I’m just looking something up on my phone to show you. [showed picture of letter]
Cooper: That is wonderful.
Needham: The funny thing is she didn’t keep what I colored, but she kept the letter from the newspaper telling me I had won. And this is the thing that began my passion for film, my hobby, my role, my career, everything I did all began with this coloring competition.
Now, 15 years ago, I was talking to my grandmother about the coloring competition, and I said, “You know, IMDb, it’s all because of the coloring competition.” And she looked at me and she said, “Ooohh!” And I’m like, “What do you mean?” And she says, “I’ve got a terrible confession to make.” And I’m like, “What? What?” And she said—
Cooper: (trying not to laugh)
Needham: You can see what’s coming, can’t you? She said, “After you went to bed that night, I couldn’t help but go over all of the bits that you missed and all of the colors that you got wrong and everything.” And I’m like, “Oh, my goodness! Everything I do is all based on a fraudulent coloring competition entry?” (laughter) “Oh, no!” What do you do under these circumstances? But there you go.
Cooper: I think you need to give everything back, shut down the company—
Needham: Anyway, back to the brief plot, I’m the right age for “Star Wars,” the first “Star Wars” movie, for the birth of the home computer revolution in the UK and the home video revolution in the UK. Those two things were both happening at the end of the ’70s and the early ’80s. So, I found myself in 1981 being in the position where I was seeing so many movies on VHS tapes that I could no longer keep track of what I’d seen and what I hadn’t seen. I got a paper diary, and I would write down what movies I saw on what day. But I’m also interested in who wrote them, who directed them, who was in them. So, I went to my very small home computer and created a database. I used to rewind the VHS tapes and type in the credits, just for my own use. That’s the birth of IMDb, my teenage film diary.
I got online in 1985. I met like-minded people on the Internet in the late ’80s, and then in October 1990 launched the very first downloadable IMDb software and data before the Web existed.
Cooper: In 1990, sure, early.
Needham: Yeah, so early.
Cooper: That was barely the World Wide Web. That was pure Internet.
Needham: Pure Internet, before the Web existed. It was just a group of volunteers like me, passionate about movies, wanting to share their love of movies with people around the world. We would never meet. We would never even do a video call because video calls didn’t exist. It was all done by email. It shows you—a lot of the time people can have a negative view of technology, but it allowed a group of people to collaborate on this all without ever meeting, from different places throughout the world, different first languages, but we all spoke English, and we were able to work on this.
So, we launched a website in 1993, and we were one of the first 100 websites to launch. Again, it was all volunteer, and it was just on a college Web server. It grew so big by 1995 that we couldn’t really do it as a hobby anymore. We had to choose between closing it down or seeing if we could incorporate as a business and work on it maybe in a professional capacity.
This was in the very early days. We didn’t know if it would work. We bought our first server on a credit card. I sold our first piece of advertising two weeks later and was able to pay off the credit card. By the summer of 1996 I had enough confidence that I could quit my day job and become our first full-time employee. And then as the business grew, we would convert our different volunteer shareholders into full-time employees as we could afford to pay them.
That ran very, very nicely for the next two years, and in December of ’97, I got an email from somebody working for Jeff Bezos at Amazon. It said Jeff would be over in the UK and would like to come and discuss some business ideas. We went along. Jeff explained how Amazon was going from selling books to music to movies, and what would we think about a potential acquisition? It sounded like such a good partnership. There we were and over the course of just a day we decided thinking, “We should go for that.” So, we became Amazon’s first-ever acquisition in April of 1998.
We’ve been part of Amazon ever since, and during that time IMDb has grown from strength to strength. We have 200 million customers who visit IMDb across the Web, across apps every month. We offer IMDb Pro for people within the film industry as a subscription service. It’s just a joy to be in this role doing this for all these years-that’s how we got here.
Cooper: Amazon’s grown a little bit since you met with Bezos?
Needham: Yes, they have! (laughs) Just a little bit. And it’s been a great partnership. IMDb’s developed things independently, but during that time we also do things together. IMDb helps power the FIRE-TV experience, so you look up a movie or a show on it you’ll find IMDb ratings and trivia, cast and crew. We also have a feature called X-Ray, so if you’re watching a movie on your FIRE-TV and you press the Pause button, up will pop the head shots of the people in the current scene. All of that is powered with IMDb information. If you ask Alexa an entertainment-related question, there’s a good chance she will answer using IMDb information. We’ve kind of stayed true to our mission, which is basically to power the creation, the discovery, and the enjoyment of entertainment everywhere. But everywhere keeps getting bigger! (laughs)
Cooper: (laughs) Do you travel much? You have a global industry now. You could be anywhere and do business, really.
Needham: And again, that’s the power of technology. I used to travel a lot more prior to the pandemic, but these days, one of the beauties of the world is that we have the magic of Zoom. Virtual film festivals mean people can attend things without needing to be physically there. So, I don’t travel as much as I used to, but I do still travel. We were in Sundance earlier in the year.
If you think about these things from an accessibility perspective, the ability to attend a film festival without necessarily needing to travel to the physical location is a good thing. It’s only a good thing. Who knows where things are going with VR goggles, they may eliminate some of those final boundaries, and that may mean you can actually have that experience.
I remember back to 2020 the Disability Film Challenge awards were all done on Zoom! (laughs) All of the jury coordination, the evening itself, everything. And then we were able to go live via Zoom to different locations. It allowed us to go wherever people were. I’m very passionate about entertainment, and I’m also very passionate about how technology can help the world. (laughs)
Cooper: I one hundred-percent agree. I think COVID has moved us forward. It’s now set in our psyche, we understand that we have the capability to connect in this way now. Also, websites are becoming more accessible. At ABILITY Corps, we’ve built websites, the technology is evolving to be fully accessible with screen readers, navigation standards, Alt text, etc., it’s opening up the world.
Cooper: Have you come out yet to LA for the Film Challenge?
Needham: In the last three years, I’ve only been in LA once. (laughs) We all work so closely remotely.
Cooper: Maybe next year you’ll come out.
Needham: Yeah! Although now, it’s one of those things where you don’t know—because I’ve done it so long virtually, I wonder whether I would betray something by doing it in real life.
It’s been so fun to work with Easterseals. IMDb Pro helps our professional customers get discovered by helping them promote themselves to the industry. We were looking for ways we could be more inclusive and accessible. So Easterseals is a great partner to work with from that perspective.
We began this journey asking how IMDb can help people get discovered? How can we help the industry professional make more inclusive, authentic and equitable hiring decisions? Particularly for on-screen talent. Those questions led us to the last piece of the puzzle, which was essentially granting people with disabilities access to IMDb Pro for free and allowing customers to claim their page. We worked again with Easterseals to make sure our customers are comfortable, and give the opportunity to identify as part of the disability community. IMDb also provide tools that allow people making hiring decisions to discover those people.
Each person decides how much information they want to share. And also, just in the interests of full transparency, this access for PWD is kind of like a free tier of IMDb Pro. IMDb Pro still exists as a subscription service, and obviously you get more with a paid subscription, but we are providing free access to people to claim their page and be able to describe themselves so they can be authentically hired. It’s one step along the road of many steps that we’re happy to be taking.
Cooper: Interesting. We too were early adopters of the web. ABILITY Magazine got online in late 1993, and in 1995 we launched abilityJOBS.com, the first job board for job seekers with disabilities. Amazon is one of our Leading A-D-A members.
Needham: Oh, great!
Cooper: In addition, we support abilityEntertainment (abilityE.org). [I can show you on my screen]
Needham: Yes, I’m seeing it on my own laptop.
Cooper: There are thousands of performers with disabilities. It’s searchable by very specific disabilities. For example, Netflix asked us to find a young person with a South Asian accent with a disability, and Disney TV Animation asked us to find a voice over actor who is an authentic wheelchair user. Many roles have been filled thanks to our talent search capabilities.
Cooper: abilityE is nonprofit and free to talent.
Needham: I like that, the more people working on disability inclusion, the better for everyone.
Since Col Needham was so excited to be a judge in past Easterseals Disability Film Challenges, ABILITY minds wanted to know if Needham would return. Cooper contacted the Film Challenge’s organizer (and friend of ABILITY), Nic Novicki, for a comment.
Novicki: It’s truly an honor to work with IMDb. It’s a site that I’ve used throughout my career as an actor, as a producer and, ultimately, to find talent. They’ve really helped us make the Film Challenge possible, grow and become more exciting. The fact that Col Needham, the CEO of IMDb, is a judge is truly an honor. He’s been a judge since 2020. And every year, it’s just so incredible to be able to get the input and the ability to have someone of his stature in the entertainment industry and the business world reviewing these films.
Cooper: I think I know this answer. Will you invite Col back?
Novicki: (laughs) I will definitely invite Col back this year and as many years as he wants to judge.
Cooper: (laughs) He’ll be happy with that.
Novicki: Yeah. I’ve become friends with him through the Challenge and events. It’s great to be around him and learn from him.
Cooper: You should do some stand-up in England and go visit him in Bristol.
Novicki: (laughs) I know! I’ve done stand-up in England. I did tours for the troops over there. It’s funny because his wife was saying—I sat at the table with him and his wife. I met his wife a couple of times. She’s so nice, too. Basically, she was like, “Yeah, come stay with us!” They have a screening room. It was awesome.
Cooper: They both seem like jolly people.
Cooper: Lots of smiles.
Novicki: Hopefully, I’ll see you at our awards ceremony again at Sony.