IMDb Founder and CEO Col Needham shares his best advice. Yes, it’s from the movies.

IMDb Founder and CEO Col Needham

March 17, 2022 | By Matt Miller, Sr. Copywriter

This is My Best Advice, a series that asks advertising experts to share key learnings from their career journeys, the best advice they’ve ever received, and insights to help grow brands and businesses.

In January of 1980, Col Needham started compiling a hand-written database of every movie he watched. He was 12 years old.

“I was seeing so many movies, I could no longer remember which ones I’d seen,” Needham remembers. He’s kept this diary of films ever since. Even though many of the early ‘80s paper journals were lost in the great “tidying incident,” he still has physical copies of his movie logs going back to 1990, in little, clearly-labeled black books.

Thankfully, even though some of the paper records have been lost with time, Needham’s database of movies not only still exists, but has expanded into IMDb, the world’s most popular and authoritative source for movie, TV, and celebrity content.

Along with his interest in movies, Needham had a fascination with technology. In 1981, he used an ancient IBM PC with 10s of kilobytes of memory, to keep a record of the films he watched and the acting credits. He’d pause his VHS tapes and type in the names of the actors and directors into the computer database.

“It was kind of just for my own use. I could run reports like how many Alfred Hitchcock movies starring Cary Grant have I seen?” he says. The answer: four, because there are only four.

Throughout the ‘80s, he found a group of likeminded people on the pre-web internet, which was at the time mostly text-based, and on the 17th of October 1990 he wrote and posted the very first IMDb software. By the mid-’90s, the website started hosting advertisements from major motion pictures, and Needham knew it was time to make IMDb his full-time job. Today, IMDb offers a searchable database of hundreds of millions of data items including more than 8 million movies, TV shows, and other entertainment titles and more than 11 million celebrities, filmmakers and crew members. The IMDb consumer site is the #1 movie website in the world with a combined web and mobile audience of more than 200 million monthly visitors. IMDb apps for iOS and Android have been downloaded more than 250 million times, and IMDb’s social media channels are followed by more than 15 million highly engaged fans.1

As for Needham himself, he’s watched more than 14,000 movies -- that’s approximately three years of non-stop years of movie watching. Below, Needham talks with Amazon Ads about the best advice he has for advertisers, brands, and business leaders. Yes, it comes from the movies:

Before diving into your best advice, The Academy Awards are coming up, do you have a favorite for Best Picture?

It’s a really good set of films. And among the nominees for Best Picture, I personally would go for Dune. Nightmare Alley was phenomenally good. CODA was brilliant. Licorice Pizza, I loved the screenplay for that. The Power of the Dog and Belfast were great. There’s an abundance of good choices. But in my perfect world it would be Dune.

I was not expecting that, but I would love to see it go to Dune. Okay, well let’s get into the advice. Col, what is the best advice you’ve received?

So first of all, I should set the context here. It’s not technically advice, but it is my all-time favorite movie quote. And it’s really my guiding principle in life. It’s from [the 1991 Lawrence Kasdan film] Grand Canyon, and the quote is: “All of life’s riddles are answered in the movies.” It’s a Steve Martin quote from the film—you can look it up on IMDb.

quoteUpAll of life’s riddles are answered in the movies.quoteDown
— Steve Martin, Grand Canyon movie

Yeah, that’s a great scene and quote. So how did you interpret that line?

The thing for me about the quote is that it highlights the power of movies and TV to inform and entertain audiences. When watching a movie or a show you can be taken to another culture, another country, you can experience life in a different language, you can go back through history and see how things were. You can be where you are today and see how things might turn out in the future. And you can imagine worlds that don’t exist yet. And so, all of life’s riddles are answered in the movies. That’s why that piece of advice speaks to me and why I’ve lived my life through it. Hence, my quest to watch as many movies as I possibly can. This is also one of the reasons why, at IMDb, we’re so passionate about helping fans discover and decide what to watch. Just by our nature, humans are both storytellers and consumers of stories. Everything really is a story. And this quote embodies that perfectly.

So how did this quote inspire you in those early days of IMDb and throughout your career?

I practice something that I like to call “management by movie quote.” So, I often find myself in team meetings, in brainstorming sessions, meeting with customers, and suddenly a relevant movie quote will come to mind. Film and TV is kind of like a common language that can cross cultures. As long as you’ve both seen the movie or the show you can cite the quote and we can relate to it together. Another favorite quote of mine that often gets used in the business context is, “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger,” which is from Tom Hardy in Inception. In an Amazonian way, it’s similar to the leadership principle, “Think Big.”

How can brands, business owners, and advertisers use this kind of thinking inspired by movies?

Advertising, like filmmaking, is an adventure in storytelling. You want to create worlds and characters that are compelling and can take audiences on a journey. Just as IMDb customers are passionate about storytelling and entertainment, we get to work with brands to create compelling opportunities for them to engage with audiences as well. Everything from high-impact site takeovers, sponsorships of IMDb’s coverage of tentpole events like The Emmy Awards, The Academy Awards, and The Sundance Film Festival, to producing original videos and podcasts. It’s about placing your brand message within that context where consumers may associate your products with the movie or the discovery of a favorite actor or actress or director. It weaves together a new storytelling adventure. Alongside that is a brand storytelling adventure. It’s magic.

quoteUpIt’s about placing your brand message within that context where consumers may associate your products with the movie or the discovery of a favorite actor or actress or director.quoteDown
— Col Needham, Founder and CEO, IMDb

You’ve given me a couple of great ones already, but is there a specific movie or quote you’d recommend to anyone in advertising?

It’s definitely a La La Land quote: “People love what other people are passionate about.” My advice would be to make sure your passion for your brand or advertising concept comes through loud and clear in the campaign. It makes a huge difference—an absolutely huge difference.

Your passion for movies definitely comes through loud and clear. And here I thought you’d suggest a movie about advertising.

It’s all about passion. That’s the beauty of the Grand Canyon quote. It’s that connection people have to stories. People love to hear stories, whether those stories take the form of a film, a TV series, or a piece of ad creative. It’s all part of the wonder of storytelling.

Can you think of the best advice you’ve given during your career? Did it come from the movies?

One of my other go-to quotes is from The Philadelphia Story. It’s a Katharine Hepburn quote that goes: “The time to make up your mind about people is never.” You can apply that to people, but you can also apply that to movies, TV and other forms of entertainment. I encourage fans to be as open-minded as possible about the entertainment they seek out and enjoy. There is tremendous creativity, imagination, and excellence to be found in all storytelling genres and forms – movies, series, music, video games, podcasts and so much more. IMDb can help fans and brands be open to new things.

Tell me about how brands have integrated with entertainment on IMDb.

We were one of the true pioneers of online advertising. The first movie to be advertised on IMDb was in 1996.

Can I try to guess it? Is it Independence Day?

It is Independence Day. That was my cue to quit my day job and do this full time. It’s been a fun journey since then, because what we’ve tried to do is stay at the forefront of innovation in terms of customer features to engage our audiences and the way in which we can help brands and advertisers connect with our customers while they’re on IMDb. We’ve worked with entertainment brands like Disney, HBO Max, Apple TV. They’re running campaigns that are native to the content. But equally, we run campaigns from non-entertainment advertisers like Microsoft and Acura, who are reaching IMDb’s audience of more than 200 million monthly visitors, across our mobile apps, website, social channels, wherever people are engaging with IMDb.

Today, we get to connect brands to entertainment fans, and that offers them the ability to reach a unique, demographically diverse audience of highly engaged customers within our trusted, brand-safe environment. We’re always looking to incubate new ideas and collaborate with leading brands to put their products in front of the right customers at the right time. We create things like highly immersive ad experiences all the way through to performance-based advertising and everything in between. Including this—hold on one second....

[Needham walks off screen and returns holding a Book of Boba Fett Watch Kit]

This is one of our sponsored Watch Kits. You’ve got popcorn, chocolate, socks, an IMDb mug. IMDb Watch Kits are an inventive way we help advertisers put their products directly into the hands of key influencers and fans at exactly the right time. To celebrate the 2021 Oscars, we teamed with Dr Pepper and Toyota to create a Watch Kit which included samples of Dr Pepper, champagne flutes, Dr Pepper-branded Oscar ballots and Oscar Bingo cards, a cozy blanket and other treats designed to make watching the Oscars from home special and fun.

Not surprisingly, we are quite busy during the Oscars, because customers are following along with the ceremony, searching to learn more about the winners, and adding titles to their IMDb Watchlist. It's a big event for our customers, for us, and for our advertisers who are able to reach a super engaged audience just when they are discovering fantastic films and seeking to learn more about the nominees.

People love to try and learn new things. IMDb is designed to help fans discover and decide what to watch, whether they are on their mobile phone, laptop, TV and more. IMDb makes it easy for brands to present their product or service to engaged customers who are in an information-seeking and recommendation-seeking mindset, during tentpole entertainment events like the Oscars and every single day. When advertising on IMDb, brands are top-of-mind at the exact moment consumers discover their next favorite show, look up their favorite actor or actress, share their opinions via our ratings and reviews, and so much more. IMDb connects advertisers and fans in unique and special ways. This is the IMDb story.

1 Amazon internal, 2022