Earlier this week IMDb disclosed its list of the top 10 most highly rated films in India. Leading the list was Sriram Raghavan’s AndhaDhun, followed by the Tamil hits Ratsasan and 96. These films were unanimously voted for by IMDb’s massive customer base. Col Needham, the founder and CEO of the website, made his first visit to India to unveil this list and also announce that Indian movie lovers now constitute the site’s second largest user base. Here he speaks about what it’s taken to make the IMDb rating of a film or TV show a coveted honour that is influencing viewing decisions worldwide.
What brings you to India? Is it your first visit?
Col: Yes, it’s very exciting to be here. So, two things. First, to talk about our top 10 Indian movies of 2018. This basically reflects fan interest from within India or Indian titles. The exciting thing for all, and me specifically, is this is from fan votes. It has accumulated over the year on our 1 to 10 rating scale. What we’re seeing reflected is four regional titles, movies either based on real life events or that talk about important social issues. I’m kind of interested in reflecting on the growth and interest in Indian titles on IMDb. Many of these are later in the year releases and we can see the trajectory of growth within India.
Second reason is that India is now our second largest country by users. What we’ve seen is the growth of mobile phones, cheaper phones, higher spec phones and cheaper data packs that are bringing people online faster than ever. India itself is a culture that is rich in its interest in film, television, and music. So what we’re seeing is that people are not only looking up global cinema, they’re specifically looking at Indian films and more recently, Indian TV series as well. Now we’re at the point where we have over 2 lakh pages in Indian films, India shows, and Indian celebrities and crew.
One has read about the IMDb story and how when you started, it was the only database online for every movie. But what has it taken to get to a position of influence in the movie making world? An article in The Guardian calls you the most powerful Brit in Hollywood.
Col: I don’t think it’s me personally. Its IMDb. Because we’re such a customer based service, we’re always listening to our customers and we’re also trying to estimate where our customers will be in the future. Within that, anything that we’ve done for India has been things like launching the trending list so you can see what titles and shows people are looking at within India. Because of that, people within the industry are interested in what IMDb’s users are doing on IMDb and the services that we have been able to build from that is helping people find and discover what they want to watch next. One of the things I’ve observed here is that Indian films tend to be longer. So if you’re going to spend 3 hours of your time watching a film, IMDb is useful for helping you make that decision.
What does it take to build credibility and for people to trust the worth of an IMDb rating?
Col: You know, our difference is that these are fan votes on the 1 to 10 scale. The voting system was launched at the very beginning of IMDb and we’ve been continually refining that and seeing how we can best represent the rating from the voters. So basically, you register, you vote on the 1 to 10 scale, we feed that to our calculations and we produce a result at the end. You can always argue whether you personally agree or disagree with the rating but what you can’t argue is that it’s the representative of the overall fan view of the film and that’s kind of what’s exciting about this top 10 here. Some of these are not necessarily the biggest budget films or the biggest star driven films. We do also have the critics’ review if you want to see what our professional critic opinion is. Another feature that we have is any registered user can write their own review of the film. We kind of help collect global opinion. And then customers start to go ‘Oh, IMDb recommended that show, I watched it, it was good. What else can IMDb recommend?’ Customer trust is something you earn over many years.
Is it a challenge for you to deal with the ever-changing internet? There are cases of trolls attacking a film’s rating…
Col: Rather than focusing on the specific ratings on specific titles, we’re always tuning the overall algorithm and what we find over time is as more of the audience comes online, and sees the film or the show and expresses their opinion, you get the benefits of the scales in terms of the number of people voting.
So is that something you have to constantly work on?
Col: Yes, on a weekly basis. It’s relentless focus on what our customers need. They want a rating that reflects their opinion as a whole. We can always argue about how my favourite film should be higher. That’s why we provide things in terms of personalized recommendations, the ability to rate things, to review things, to look at professional critics. For parents, we have features such as parents’ guide which gives you opinions whether you would want to watch this with your family. IMDb is forming viewing decisions.
Speaking of influencing viewer decisions, I also want to know how IMDb Pro is used to even influence casting decisions in movies.
Col: So basically, IMDb Pro is the professional subscription version of IMDb. We launched that to address a customer need we were finding from professionals within the global entertainment industry. They wanted to use IMDb to keep track of who is somebody’s agent, follow industry news, the more business side of the industry. When you’re like, ‘Who did the visual effects on this film? I want to hire them for my film. And who shot this? She was amazing. I want to hire her for my show.’ Again, the focus on the customers and within that, couple of tools provided. There’s the movie meter and star meter where we track over time the popularity of every name and every title.
How do you do that?
Col: It’s basically by page visits to a name or title. So the person who is number one is the most popular person in the world. What we found was people within the industry were looking at star meter and they would be looking for perhaps someone who is on their way up or maybe has a climbing star meter and they can go ‘Wow, this is someone who’s about to break out’. One of our favourites is Robert Pattinson. So the story is publicly documented but the producers of Twilight were having trouble casting the role of Edward and so they were about to break for lunch and they said ‘Someone in the office, go to IMDb pro and just search for up and coming actors’. They went to Pro and there was Rob. So they called up the agent and he was hired.
Lastly, in this long journey with IMDb, what are you the most proud of?
Col: I think it is the size of the database. The fact that wherever I travel around the world, I get to meet customers that go ‘I found this on IMDb, or I found that on IMDb’. It’s the connecting customers to things that are relevant to them. I’m a great believer that every film, every show, has an audience and if we can connect titles to audiences then that makes me really, really happy.