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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Meet the Superusers Behind IMDb, the Internet’s Favorite Movie Site

By the time Les Adams arrived in Eastland, Texas, in the 1960s, he was about 50 years late for the town’s oil boom. But Adams came searching for another kind of treasure. He had received a tip from his former boss at a bowling alley, a politician named Preston Smith, that a printing company in Eastland was changing up its business. For years it had been a major source of promotional materials for the movie industry, but it was moving on to a new market in restaurant menus. The company, Smith said, had some leftover pressbooks—brochures created by film distributors to market new flicks—that might interest Adams. Bearing a handwritten note from Smith, Adams found the owner, Victor Cornelius, at his office on Main Street. “I still don’t know what Preston told Victor,” Adams told me. “But I do know I ended up getting the pressbooks. He had them upstairs in a blocked-off room—shelves and shelves. It started in 1930, in alphabetical order.” Adams borrowed a pick-up truck and made five trips, ferrying three decades of film history to his own collection of memorabilia back in Lubbock, about a four-hour drive away. “I was buried in paper,” he recalled.

Victor Cornelius’ company became one of the largest menu-printing outfits in the country. Preston Smith became the 40th governor of Texas. But Les Adams would become a leader in something arguably even grander and farther-reaching.

For the next three decades, Adams spent his spare time expanding his collection and his expertise on film, particularly cinema from the 1930s to the 1960s. Then in 1999 Adams learned about a place on the still-new World Wide Web that could hold all that knowledge. His first impression of the Internet Movie Database wasn’t favorable—“an ugly orchard filled with low-hanging fruit”—but he also saw that it had potential to be “the only site that was a one-stop place for movie researchers and historians.” He decided to pitch in on the crowdsourced project. 

Adams, now 88, has since written almost 7,000 plot summaries for films listed on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). In total, he’s contributed more than 890,000 pieces of information about film and TV, a chunk of which came straight from the files he hauled from Eastland. “If data was weighable,” he told me, “the IMDb owes a small ton of thank you kindly, sirs to Preston Smith and Victor Cornelius. I was only the messenger.”

Yet Adams’ extensive additions to the database make him only the 41st-most-prolific contributor, as of early 2023. Someone else has written over 35,000 plot summaries; another is credited—somewhat controversially—with a staggering total of 22 million items. Contributions can range from correcting an errant punctuation mark to writing a biography of a new actor.

Although there are over 83 million registered users of IMDb in the world, only a small fraction of those ever add information to it. That group includes actors adding their own credits; production companies filing content for their productions; and most of all, individual volunteers contributing wherever they see fit. The top 300 contributors—from Brazil, India, Germany, Norway, the Philippines, Spain, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, and the US, among others—are memorialized annually in the site’s Hall of Fame for the extraordinary amounts of time and energy they spend helping build the preeminent reference source for film and TV. Beyond that, they don’t get public recognition; they are largely pseudonymous and don’t divulge much about themselves on the site. They don’t get paid, either. (Adams says he once received an IMDb tie pin.) And yet their contributions have an incalculable reach across the web—viewed by millions on IMDb, repurposed on Wikipedia and TikTok, copied into movie event listings, cited in scholarly articles. 

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In an era when many have become pessimistic about the state of the internet, Wikipedia is often held up as a rare miracle of collaborative, crowdsourced knowledge-gathering for the public good—a lonely holdout for the early web’s utopian ideals. But IMDb has been doing much the same for five years longer than Wikipedia. And its success and longevity are an arguably weirder phenomenon. It is sourced from a crowd, but a crowd where everyone works alone. It’s a grassroots project, and yet it’s owned by one of the biggest companies in the world. It’s a repository of knowledge premised on the idea of giving credit where credit is due—but its own story is less frequently acknowledged.       

Debating the relative hotness of celebrities is an enduring adolescent pastime—and sometimes the kernel of a 30-year-old web giant. On a Usenet group in 1989, someone started a thread to discuss which actresses where the most attractive. Someone else turned that thread into a list of actresses and their movies; someone else organized and distributed updated versions to the group every month as “THE LIST.” Another member started a living actors list, then a dead actors list (hotness no longer essential). Someone else started a directors list. In October 1990, a British programmer and film buff named Col Needham, who was involved in the project, published a script—code, not a screenplay—that allowed users to search all the lists, thus launching the first version of the Internet Movie Database. Dozens more volunteers, plus two universities, supported the creation and management of more lists and the infrastructure to contribute to, manage, and access the data. In 1996, Needham and his associates incorporated IMDb as its own business and moved to imdb.com, with entries for over 65,000 films and a lofty mission “to capture any and all information associated with movies from across the world.” 

That may not sound like such an audacious mission today, but this was two years before Google officially launched with its quest to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” and five years before Wikipedia. Access to free, endless information was a revelation, rather than an expectation. If you wanted to know something, you also needed to know where to look—the right reference book, magazine back catalogs, or, perhaps, pressbook archive. IMDb crammed it all together and offered film obsessives and casual moviegoers alike a single place to find it. And it did so as a rare hybrid between a user-driven cooperative enterprise and a commercial product. Amazon bought IMDb in 1998 and supercharged the reach of its content, but its film-buff knowledge-production skunkworks remained largely untouched.

IMDb’s emergence almost cost Gary Brumburgh a decade of his life. Brumburgh had spent the 1980s researching and writing a reference book covering a thousand actors, all while struggling to make it in Hollywood himself. The moment he visited IMDb for the first time, he realized that his literary project, at least, didn’t have a future. “I was so depressed because IMDb had just kind of taken my book and it was obsolete now,” he told me. But after his initial disappointment, he found a new purpose for all that work: For over two years, Brumburgh would come home from his day job with the County of Los Angeles and put in another five hours writing and submitting mini-bios to IMDb (although not one for himself). “It was obsessive,” he says. “I shut myself off from people for a long time, but I got done what I felt I needed to do.” 

Brumburgh’s obsession has made him the third-most-prolific IMDb biographer of all time, with over 1,200 bios, prose pieces covering a subject’s life and career that sometimes approach a thousand words. He’s chronicled plenty of folks on the A-list, including Clive Owen, Forest Whitaker, Jeff Bridges, Jennifer Hudson, John C. Reilly, Kathy Bates, Mark Ruffalo, and Tilda Swinton. The bulk of his contributions, however, are bios of actors from the 1930s to ’50s and lesser-known actors from more recent eras. “I wanted the younger people who are involved in IMDb to know who these actors were back then and not just to forget about them,” says Brumburgh, who’s now 72, retired, and singing jazz in Nashville. Although IMDb broke his book, his subsequent contributions to the site helped him find gigs as a writer for movie magazines like Films of the Golden Age and Classic Images. All told, things worked out: “I love IMDb. I’m on it constantly,” he says. 

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Brumburgh’s botched book project and five-hour-a-day habit may be unique, but his explanation for what motivates him is not. Like other so-called supercontributors, he believes he’s working in service to an art form and everyone who sees it. Completeness and accuracy are a source of pride.

As of December 2022, IMDb contained pages for over 625,000 movies and over 230,000 TV series. The site now also includes reference information on podcasts, music videos, and video games, plus trailers, original content, showtimes, and watchlists. In total, these pages hold over 484 million pieces of data, from a lengthy synopsis of a movie to its exact run time. 

Anyone who opens an IMDb account can submit additions and edits to the site. But not all submissions are equal. The site is governed by a Contributor’s Charter, as well as 109 instructional guides, from how to list countries (origin of financing, not location of filming) to whether wigs are part of the costume department (they’re not). Contributions are reviewed by IMDb, though the company is opaque when it comes to what exactly that process entails. A representative for IMDb wouldn’t share how many moderators and editors are employed by the site, nor the extent to which they may gather or revise content themselves—only that they “have teams and mechanisms for reviewing data to ensure it’s as accurate and reliable as possible.”

At least some of those staff, as well as CEO Col Needham, are also active in the IMDb Community Forums, where the contribution system itself gets continually scrutinized and is often revised through complaints, suggestions, and debate. The section of the forum dedicated to “Data Issues & Policy Discussions” is far and away the most active, with almost 40,000 conversations. One popular post seeks support to “MAKE THE UNIT PUBLICIST AN IMDB JOB CATEGORY” rather than lump the role in with “Additional Crew.” A typical staff announcement explains that the site is now able to appropriately categorize podcast series submissions after a successful beta test with contributors. These public negotiations about the very functioning of the site demonstrate the careful balance supporting its model: It should allow as many new contributors as possible but also encourage some of them to contribute prolifically. The top 10 users successfully submitted 22,910,419 items last year, or nearly 5 percent of all data items that exist on the site. To make it on the end-of-year leaderboard of top contributors, a user needed to have produced at least 17,000 entries.  

Contributors have varied tastes and areas of expertise, ranging from punctuation to Indian soap operas—and it is those interests, more than any company plan, that dictate how the data on IMDb expands and changes each year. Les Adams, the Texan with the pressbooks, estimates that his crusade to fix incomplete non-American distributors of American films probably got him on the 2003 Top Contributor list. Christian is an editor and translator in Spain and the man behind Pegg1976, the sixth all-time contributor to IMDb by the end of 2022. He’s made almost 3 million contributions, correcting errors that other users make and IMDb overlooks: accents, capitalization, and, particularly, character names. 

Other supercontributors work to ensure that content from their country gets its due on the site. Dibyayan Chakravorty, a 31-year-old engineer in Kolkata, India, began adding to IMDb when he saw how little Indian content had detailed information. (He’s since pivoted to become the most popular author of IMDb polls of all time.) Miriam Vazquez Fraga, a journalist who’s 17th on the all-time contributor list, was a student when she began adding information about Spanish television shows and their actors in her spare time. And for every Dibyayan and Miriam, there’s someone else committed to covering, say, Romanian actors or Filipino films.

A few contributors are called to even more esoteric fields. When Joe Wawrzyniak is not working his retail job in New Jersey, he’s trying to find information on the masses of film pros who never had their name in lights—or anywhere, really. Early stunt actors, niche horror writersdog actors. “It’s a lot of fun and quite a challenge digging up info on these people,” he told me. He’s the all-time leader in biographies, having written over 3,000 of them. To get information on the lesser-knowns, Wawrzyniak is enmeshed in niche online communities and Facebook groups for film and TV, like one for 1980s extras, where he can contact actors and confirm details. 

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Ulf Kjell Gür digs through film archives in Scandinavia and Germany in search of forgotten filmmakers who haven’t been documented online. If he’s trying to cover a filmmaker’s whole career, he says he will “even trouble their friends and enemies, try to get to know something about these people, because they mean something to me.” The 70-year-old Swede, who used to work in theater, estimates he now spends six hours a day on contributions: watching films, taking notes, reading scripts, and writing plot summaries and mini-bios for IMDb. He’s seen over 6,000 features, but he finds there’s an extra pleasure in detailing the backgrounds of films that send him on the hunt. “It’s what really gets me going,” he says. “It’s like a drug.” 

Even if they’re not scouring Stockholm’s Royal Library or hauling pressbooks across Texas, most of IMDb’s supercontributors are pouring hours of work into the site. Writing a cogent biography of an actor or filmmaker can be both an extensive research project and an exercise in restraint; producing a clear recap of a show or movie is a core job responsibility of today’s magazine culture writers. At the very least, most are watching the movies and TV they’re adding data for—the supercontributors I interviewed watch two or more movies a day.

They aren’t, however, watching together.

Unlike superusers of other websites, the supercontributors of IMDb are not motivated by or engrossed in an online community. Of those I spoke to, only Dibyayan had ever sought connections with other IMDb contributors. And the site is not designed to make them: Users have scant profiles, and you can’t direct-message them. Where IMDb may be a cumulative project, it is not a collective one. A Wikipedia page on Martin Scorsese is the product of thousands of edits and no single author; his IMDb biography has a byline with a single username. These are outcomes of the contribution system, which, much like the site’s embryonic formats, is not a network—it’s a scatter of nodes, each managing their own list or toiling in their own genre, connected directly to the core. IMDb’s model has worked because that system successfully capitalized on a more abstract kind of connection: the solidarity of fandom. The supercontributors may not know one another or like any of the same things, but they want to serve fans like them and, perhaps, help create new ones.

Ines Pape may be the most prolific IMDb contributor of all time. None of the supercontributors I interviewed knew who the user inespape-1 was, nor had they ever been in touch. IMDb did not respond to a question about their identity. I chased a pseudonym through the innocent Ines Papes of Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter to no avail. Ines Pape may not be one person at all: With over 22 million total contributions—and over 3.6 million last year alone, averaging nearly seven submissions per minute—they are, at the very least, not merely a human enterprise. Supercontributors can make the Hall of Fame by writing prose, but to take the top spot they have to write code.

While Ines Pape’s methods aren’t known, last year’s number one contributor told me how he made it to the top. Simon Lyngar began adding to IMDb after he visited the site to rate Norwegian titles, only to find that no page for them existed. As a programming student, he quickly recognized that he could automate contributions to the submission form, saving himself one kind of labor while creating a new venue for testing his skills. He wrote programs to draw data, particularly podcast data, from Spotify and Norwegian state broadcasting APIs and submit them to IMDb. Now, he says, “I can start my program in the morning, it will do everything on its own, and when I come home from university I have 100,000 more contributions to my name.” Under the name Nomissimon10, his 8,924,424 contributions in 2022 earned him first place in the year’s rankings. 

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That doesn’t sit well with some contributors, who take to the community forums to debate automation. They see it as an illegitimate tactic for climbing the leaderboard. “I think a lot of them don’t understand the amount of time put into making the program in the first place and the consistency it provides in its contributions,” Lyngar said. “After all, we all just want IMDb to have more data to fill its users’ needs.” 

IMDb as a company doesn’t currently scrape any information itself, but it’s hard to imagine an Amazon subsidiary that would pass up these tools as they prove their value. Maybe uploading titles, cast and crew lists, and production details won’t be crowdsourced to humans for long. Nonetheless, even the vanguard of AI isn’t ready to watch new titles and describe them. You can ask ChatGPT to write a plot summary of an imaginary television show, but if you ask it to summarize Fleishman Is in Trouble, it’ll tell you that’s only a book. The miniseries premiered in 2022, months after the cutoff for the bot’s training data. Perhaps a future model will be better able to stay on top of the current discourse, but even the smartest AI can’t find the kind of data supercontributors track down in the physical world, on rare film reels and in dusty collections. As long as there’s offline film history to be brought online, or new but neglected content, there’s a role for people who care enough to memorialize it. 

And as long as IMDb supercontributors want to make the database as exhaustive as possible, the ceaseless production of new movies, TV shows, and podcasts means their work will never actually be complete. The sheer scale is one thing. Human fallibility is another: Les Adams calls IMDb “the most accurate source of film data and, at the same time, the most error-ridden source of film data.” Even if every title of the past were to become perfectly documented, every new piece of content pushes completion just out of reach. A Usenet list and a few dozen tech-savvy film nerds couldn’t keep up; nor can a global corporation managing a website with millions of users making millions of contributions. But there remains the aspiration of contending with everything everywhere all at once, and finding meaning in that challenge. 


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