The Decline and Fall of the Internet Movie Database – or, how Amazon screwed it all up

The Internet Movie Database used to be a totally indispensable tool for all film writers. While its accuracy was not always without question, its comprehensive nature (at least as far as English-language movies went) meant that it was the first stop for anyone wondering “What else was that actor in?”, or trying to find out who wrote the script for an obscure Hammer flick.

But now, it’s all gone horribly wrong, to the extent where I will now go to extraordinary lengths rather than endure visiting it. What happened? One word: Amazon. In 1998, the colossus of online Amazon bought out what had, up until then, been a non-commercial site, and the decline has been inexorable. As proof, one need look no further than the IMDb itself, has no qualms about blowing its own trumpet with selective reviews. However, the most recent date on these glowing recommendations comes from back in 1999 – and that link is mysteriously broken…

What’s the problem? Any attempt to use the database now results in a constant fight against pop-up adverts, often multiple ones for the same company! A form letter from the IMDb Help Desk (gosh, do you think a lot of people are are pissed-off as I am?) reveals that, “We are currently experimenting with pop-up ads and other formats because some of our advertisers have expressed their preference for these alternative methods of promoting their products and services.” The more obnoxious the better, it would appear.

But why does it need these at all? The site was founded in 1990, so survived eight years as a non-commercial entity, largely without advertising, particularly of the intrusive nature we currently endure. But now, it is drowning in features which I find totally useless. Across the top of the IMDb screen, we have: Now Playing, Movie/TV News, My Movies, Fun & Games, Message Boards, US Movie Showtimes, Help & Guide and IMDb Pro. We’ll get back to the last-named shortly, but I can honestly say I’ve never bothered with any of the others.

All these irrelevancies take up server space and processing power; if they were dumped as superfluous (and the IMDb, trying to be a jack-of-all-trades, is going to master none), the need for advertising would largely evaporate. The IMDb form letter sees it differently, however: “our advertisers help us to continue providing you with great movie information, and thanks to them we can keep offering our popular service for free and continually improve our site with new content and features.” Oh, goody: more stuff we don’t want, didn’t ask for, and won’t use.

Oh, but I forgot, it’s now owned by Amazon, a company in perpetual, desperate need of showing a profit. The irony of the following statement, taken from the official IMDb history, will be obvious: “In Jeff Bezos [founder of Amazon], the people at the IMDb saw a kindred spirit, someone who understood the internet and its community, not just its potential as a marketplace.” Hence all the pop-up adverts, eh, Jeff?

This commercialization of the IMDb has been growing for a while. A lot of their movie posters now come with a stern warning that the images are copyright of the Nostalgia Factory – I wonder what the movie studios think about that? – and you’re not allowed to right-click and “Save As…”. While a minor inconvenience at worst (tech tip: ALT+PRINT_SCRN copies your screen to a buffer, from where it may be pasted to your favourite graphics package), it illustrates the creeping nature of such things.

Worst of all, the IMDb now wants us to pay. “We have also launched a professional version of our service called IMDb Pro, which offers many new additional features and is entirely pop-up free.” The sheer audacity of this is striking: take information, freely submitted by unpaid volunteers, then turn round and sell it back to them for $12.95 a month, by making the non-subscription version a total nightmare to use.

They can do this because, buried away in the depths of the IMDb, is the following nasty little paragraph: “If you do post content or submit material, and unless we indicate otherwise, you grant and its affiliates a nonexclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, and fully sublicensable right to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, and display such content throughout the world in any media.” I wonder how many of the people who contributed the information are happy with the way Amazon are exploiting it?

We need to strike back and reclaim the IMDb. At the polite end of the spectrum, we should flood them with feedback, protesting the pop-ups – the email address is Perhaps request that an advert-free, bare bones version should be available: no “Fun and Games”, no “US Movie Showtimes”, just information on the films. More effectively, Amazon are still largely too cheap to pay for their facts, and rely heavily on users. For example, one of the features of IMDb Pro is STARmeter (TM), which is really just a count of how many people look up a given celebrity. By repeated visits, we can render this feature useless; how seriously would anyone take it if the #1 actor was Shaquille O’Neal?

We, the Internet community, created the IMDb. And Amazon would do well to remember that we can destroy it, too.