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October 23, 2008

Open Letter on the Internet Movie Database


To Col Needham, Jeff Bezos and whomever else this may concern:

Congratulations on the 18th birthday of the Internet Movie Database. You have been around for longer than many of us have been online or encountered our first personal computers. I know that I have used you for reference countless times. However, like any supposedly mature entity, I have to ask you, with all due respect, to please grow up and truly fulfill your mission.

For many people, like the voters who declared The Dark Knight as the best film ever made, there is no problem with IMDb as a resource to find out what Andy Hopkins did on that production. For those of use whose interest in film may veer away from the mainstream, IMDb can often be unreliable, vague or just plain frustrating. That the job openings advertised are only for techies and not film scholars makes me also question how serious the goal is to provide information on all things cinematic.

Take for example, this spotty filmography of Curtis Harrington. I have attempted several times to set the record straight by adding Harrington's short films to the database. It takes a bit of digging to find even a partial list online. For reasons best known to the IMDb staff, my entries to complete Harrington's filmography never passed their gatekeepers.

Meanwhile, no one has deleted the the misinformation that Spike Lee studied film under Martin Scorsese. Oliver Stone, yes. Spike Lee, no. How would I know? I was there, amigo. You'll have to take my word for it as I am not listed in the credits of Street Scenes, functioning as a lowly production assistant being only a Freshman that Spring. Scorsese was already in Hollywood by the time Mr. Lee came to NYU.

Where IMDb really fails is in Asian films. Nothing at all existed on a film I wrote about a few months ago, Insee Thong. Classic Thai cinema may be too esoteric for the folks at IMDb. On the other hand, there could be more interest with an upcoming tribute to the "Red Eagle" series of films starring Ananda Everingham, made by Wisit Sasanatieng. Even with more current Thai films, consider that someone should straighten out the filmography of Lena Christensen, as well as adding a few more titles. Another example of IMDb falling short is with this title.

Now I know that someone is going to whine about the cost to really make IMDb good, but there can be an upside. As most of us know, IMDb is owned by Amazon.com. Many of us have bought books and DVDs from Amazon. With many films being made available from around the world, if IMDb improves their information on both the films and the availability of those films on DVD, Amazon would make even more money.

Anyways, my optimism may be unfounded, but I hope that IMDb can actually live up to its potential.


Peter Nellhaus

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 23, 2008 12:07 AM


I must concur! I've spent hours adding information about Japanese films to imdb only to have all my efforts ignored and it's extremely frustrating.

I think imdb is an absolutely amazing resource but it could be much much better and I can't figure out why straight white males under the age of 25 seem to be determining what the top 250 movies are. Their general rating system is just plain screwy and needs to be revised.

Posted by: Kimberly at October 23, 2008 02:49 AM

Great open letter, Peter, and one I agree with completely. Not only is the database incomplete with regard to films, but the listings themselves leave a lot to be desired. There are 4 main characters in the Chilean film The Sky, The Earth, and the Rain, but the cast list gives only two. For most of the festival films I've been reviewing, I've had to go elsewhere to fill in the blanks.

I also think the database could be easier to search. I'd love to have plotline search of some kind.

As for Kimberley's remark that 25 and below boys are determining the top 250 (not that I care about rankings, but I know others do), well, that is the biggest bubble of moviegoers. One look at the L.A.M.B. demographics published a day or two ago shows that as group in the majority.

It would be nice to have a top 250 for different age groups, not overall. I'd find that information not only useful, but also interesting in terms of how tastes change through the years.

Posted by: Marilyn at October 23, 2008 10:28 AM

Old movie stars and movies frequently have some very sketchy, unsubstantiated gossip in their history or trivia sections. I should make a more concerted effort to get some of it corrected or deleted but I also hit a brick wall with a couple of attempts and got discouraged early. I can't use anything in those sections without a great deal of double-checking. I am not sure what the problem is; Wikipedia can have some of the same flaws but its articles are frequently more accurate.

As you say, the fact that they are hiring programmers and other computer people and not film scholars tells you everything about the site's aims.

Posted by: Campaspe at October 23, 2008 09:43 PM

I probably spent hours adding information on Thai films, and just a fraction ever appeared on the database. I rarely make contributions to IMDb anymore, though I did put in for Lena Christensen's various filmographies to be merged. We'll see how that turns out.

The problem is a lack of transparency and accountability. The IMDb system is closed. What are their sources? And, for that matter, what system are they using to transliterate Thai names?

Wikipedia is not perfect nor necessarily the ultimate online resource for movies, but at least you can see what changes are being made. And, if you have the time and access to verifiable sources, you can add the information to Wikipedia yourself and see it appear immediately.

Posted by: wk at October 27, 2008 12:16 PM