My Experience at IMDb’s First-Ever Contributor Meet-Up

IMDb 2018 merchandise

2018 has been very special for me. Especially for my passive association with cinema. I wrote for Little India Directory; I completed 1000 movie reviews (of which over 125 were written this year) on IMDb; and for the first time in four years, I attended all the seven days of the (20th edition of the) Mumbai Film Festival in October this year and caught a record 13 films including the opening and closing films. The fest was perhaps the most exhilarating experience I had all year, which I would compare with my time at the fabulous Young Critics Lab in 2017. 

And then – to top everything – on 11 December I attended IMDb’s first-ever contributor meet-up here in Mumbai. It was unusual of me to go considering I often get cold feet as the day of such events approaches and eventually back out because of a passive case of social anxiety. But that would have meant going against the promise I made to myself earlier in 2018: to invest on experiences. And not on materialistic stuff like wristwatches and jackets and coffee mugs and pens. It is for the same reason why I often forcibly find myself going to soirees and catch-up parties organized by the overzealous HR at work including the one planned for Christmas next week. Gosh, I can’t wait for the Secret Santa activity as I hope to receive either a watch or a jacket. Fingers crossed!

Since I had no idea what the agenda was for the day or even what to expect at the event, I was unsure about going till even the previous day. I emailed one of the staff overseeing content at IMDb to get some idea about it, but all they said was that it was going to be a casual tête-à-tête with other contributors as well as the Founder and CEO Col Needham. I was curious to know more so I finally decided to go. And I did. Unbeknownst to the fact that it would take me by surprise.

This is my personal account of the day-long activities that happened at the casual meet-up at Sofitel in BKC, Mumbai. 

Who Attended?

A total of 19 contributors from different parts of the country were invited for the event. People from different walks of life who have been submitting kilobytes and megabytes of data for years (and even decades) were contacted and their presence ensured by the lovely and relentless Prachi Salgia, Program Manager of Digital Video at Amazon. She also played host for the entire day along with her colleagues – Vandana Pillai (with whom I exchanged the traditional question, “Where are you from in Kerala?), Sneha Shukla, and Neha Gureja, who had come all the way down from Seattle for the session.

The session’s attendance stood at 100%, a fact that I believe made the IMDb folks very happy. (Neha even suggested that there could be a second one soon.) But what was more exciting to me was to meet Anoop Varghese, a fellow contributor on IMDb and one of its top 250 worldwide contributors in 2016 and 2017, who focuses on Malayalam cinema. In fact, Anoop and I have been working together on lists about upcoming Malayalam films at least since 2016 and have only exchanged a few messages when the platform’s Message Boards was still alive. Seeing him at the event was a good enough start for me, helping me keep aside the anxiety I was trying to ignore.

Other than Anoop, I had previously interacted with Dibyayan Chakravorty over at Get Satisfaction. And because of him, I have my first-ever poll live now. (Vote if you can.) We also had Zachary Coffin, a professional actor, amongst us. I knew that I had seen him somewhere and it was only after the first few hours that I realized who he was. For the uninitiated, he was last seen in the Zee5 Original starring, Tigers (2018).

We were also lucky to interact with Col for close to an hour when he took us through the birth and history of IMDb, and quite animatedly, I should say. It was interesting to hear the history from the person who had created it, especially when he attached shoots of trivia and personal anecdotes with it, including the fact about who was the first film person to have their biography published on the platform. (Any guesses?)

Towards the end, we also interacted with Hindi screenwriter Mayur Puri, best known for his award-winning dialogues for Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om (2007). Competing with Col’s animated antics was Mayur who talked about the essence of Hindi cinema, again garnishing it with interesting trivia of his own.

All in all, it was supposed to be a day full of interactive discussions about Indian cinema and IMDb. And having experienced it first-hand, while at the comfort of some delicious food by Sofitel, I would say it was a 100% success. (I hope this acts as a cue for Prachi and Neha).

Here’s a bit more about the meet-up so that you know what to expect if it is organized in your country next. 

IMDb and Me

I have been on IMDb since 12 July 2012. Yet it was only in October 2012 that I posted my first review (for a film that released in the same year – Anwar Rasheed’s Malayalam-language drama Ustad Hotel). From then on, I have been continuously publishing reviews (1078 write-ups as of 19 December 2018), making edits to titles and biographies, creating lists (mostly focusing on Malayalam cinema), and lastly, simply being amazed at all the data that the platform houses.

One of the major reasons why I transitioned from a basic user – just rating and reviewing films – to a data contributor was because of my obsession with filling up incomplete data. When I started out – sometime in 2015 – a lot of titles I was interested in was either missing or had incomplete information. This triggered a sort of passive OCD in me to begin adding data that I know was true and verifiable, much like how Col first began adding data to his database on an email access system.

While I contributed and still do so as to help people learn more about their favorite movie or film person, I never thought something would come back to me years later in this form of a national meet-up. Which makes this event all the more cherishable to me.

What Happened at the Meet-Up?

The contributor meet-up started with all the 19 contributors and IMDb staff interacting with each other post breakfast, chiefly talking about Indian cinema and content. Once we were seated in a conference room, the hosts asked everyone to introduce themselves. That was the moment I first looked at the door, gauging the possibility of sneaking out. But I didn’t.

Prachi made it simple for us by asking us to mention our favorite film in our intros. When you talk about a topic that you are passionate about, (stage) fear goes out the window. Not so surprising to learn that Rajkumar Hirani’s comedy drama 3 Idiots (2009) was a common favorite. I said mine were Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai (2001), and Sathyan Anthikkad’s Nadodikattu (1987) in the reverse order. But most of you knew that already.

It is during this introduction that the hosts added some insider tidbits about some of the contributors’ contributions. I am choosing to not write about those because I consider that as a privilege of having attended the event. 😉

Little Bit More About the Contributors

I really loved the diversity in the room. Some – like me – were passive contributors unrelated to the film industry, who added information to titles and biographies on IMDb out of sheer fun. Some were working on films (or aspiring to be) who used IMDb as a starting platform. The age spectrum was between 19 and 50s (I guess) because we had college-going twins coming all the way from Indore as well as a senior businessman (Vinod) who flew down from Dubai.

IMDb India Contributors
The 19 contributors who attended the meet-up

As I have mentioned above, Dibyayan is a seasoned contributor who focuses on old film and TV show titles. He’s also an IMDb champion and a poll expert (with over 400 polls to his credit). Anoop, on the other hand, has added so much information to Malayalam film titles that Prachi did mention – not once but twice – how relentless he was about certain content features and errors on the platform. I also became friends with M Srinivasan (lovingly called Sri) from Chennai who is a professional filmmaker and adman (his portfolio here) and a Kamal Hassan fan. He’s raked up quite a lot of credits as a video producer over the past few years and has his own biography on IMDb.

In addition to these two, we had a casting director, Zachary Coffin the actor, aspiring filmmakers, a Wikipedian, some film crew, and Marathi film enthusiasts amidst us. Everyone had vivid stories to share about their time with IMDb and we could all relate with them. Had an outsider entered the room and tried to make sense of the things we were discussing, they would have not much understood it. They may even have shrugged it off as ‘geeky’ stuff. And that is exactly what it is, only fueled by the love for cinema and information.

Three IMDb contributor friends
(l-r) Anoop, me, and Sri

This type of craze – sheer passion – to add content without expecting anything in return is what I believe got us here. 

There were folks from Kolkata, Chennai, Pune, and Bhopal who had taken the overnight flight to make it to the event. Special nod to the IMDb staff as well as Roshni Rai from Wizcraft World for taking care of the logistics. I wouldn’t deny that it felt really good to one, have been invited to an exclusive meet-up, and two, get a cab ride from my apartment and back. The event was already showing its worth, and then Col entered the room.

Although I have interacted with him a few times at IMDb’s Get Satisfaction community, it is only after meeting him that I took him as more of a nerd who takes fun in coding and technology and cinema and less of an entrepreneur (which is how he comes off as online).

Here’s the story of IMDb as narrated by Col in possibly the best way possible.

History of IMDb by Col Needham

I have told this before and I’ll tell this again: Col talks animatedly and passionately about everything and it automatically makes talking to him amusing. Although, I did find that when I finally got to interact with him, while receiving the Top Contributor award, the anxiety kicked in and it was the opposite of amusing.

Col started his story with a short anecdote from his childhood when he was around seven. How his grandmother had encouraged him to participate in a coloring contest and how he had won the top prize (a ticket to a movie theater). Col found the movie-in-a-theater experience enthralling, which led to his appetite and increased interest in movies. And, with movies, came the need to create a personal database of those that he had watched and that are pending.

IMDb Sizzle Reel (A bit cringe-worthy!)

Initially, Col, the software engineer, started creating an offline database of movies and their associated information about directors and actors. Which then subsequently became a passion project involving a dozen more people from around the world who contacted each other through the first version of email (it took more than 24 hours for the one-way communication to execute itself in the late 1980s). Most of these “volunteers” – who are IMDb’s first contributors – hailed from the United States. If Col was interested in documenting the directors’ and actors’ names, a chap from a US state was interested in the actresses, and another from Italy was interested in the crew members. And thus began the evolution of a rough database that would germinate into the IMDb of today.

Col’s database soon went live on Usenet with information about over 10,000 movies. A direct comparison with the Movie Guide of the early 1990s (popular in the West among Christians) would make this database a strong competitor.

IMDb.com was registered sometime in 1995, followed by the acquisition by Amazon.com in 1998. And then Col finally spoke about how his grandmother had helped him to win that contest fraudulently. Since Col was not good at coloring, it was his grandmother who had taken the unfinished piece of paper that night before the submission and colored it to perfection. Which ultimately led to Col’s win.

So, you can say that a little cheating had a role to play behind IMDb’s birth. But, more than that, it shows how little things can transform into big, awesome inventions. So, next time you see that your (or a) kid is doing badly at something associated with a contest, you know what to do. Just don’t mess it up.

Of course, more about the story and history can be found on Wikipedia. But, hearing the backstory directly from the man was a treat, and probably the best element of the meet-up if you don’t consider the food. In that case, it’s food for me, any day.

After the discussion with Col, we were all given out mementos for our valuable contribution on the platform. And post that, we all took photographs with him. Even I took a selfie as a souvenir but it’s blurred, so I’ll rather share the group photo (see below).

IMDb Contributor Meet-Up
All 19 contributors with Col Needham and other IMDb staff at Sofitel, BKC

Post lunch, we discussed about IMDb’s growth in India over the past few years and how it is competing with the US for the number one spot. Neha took us through a small PowerPoint presentation (although those are a strict no-no at Amazon) about how contribution helps IMDb grow, but it soon turned into a Q&A session. So, we zapped the presentation and went and had some good food that I earlier told you about.

Assessing Indian Cinema (with Mayur Puri)

Screenwriter Mayur Puri made an appearance at the event where he talked a bit about the evolution of Indian cinema and film writing. Apart from a few self-congratulatory messages, he did have some valuable points to make about how Hindi films are constructed, what goes into all the writing, film censorship, and how attention to details is an important factor for certain Indian filmmakers. A very cheerful guy.

Mayur Puri with IMDb contributors
That’s us with Mayur Puri (extreme right)

Two of the best film trivia that he shared with us are listed below. I know that this article is showing no sign of ending so I will keep it short.

  • Director Rajkumar Santoshi once finalized a movie location in Hyderabad in the month of June (some year). After the pre-production, he took the cast and crew to the location sometime that November only to find that the location – which was selected for its abundant greenery and scenic landscape – had turned into a picture taken in grey-scale. How the crew had to paint the location later validated Puri’s argument about filmmakers’ extra attention to details. The film is China Gate (1998)
  • Producer Gulshan Rai, in the 1970s, asked his team of writer and director to make a film for him on any subject. He promised no intervention or micromanagement from his side except for a small recommendation. The movie should be titled “Teesri Aank” based on his undying devotion for Lord Shiva, which he also claimed was lucky for him. The team dismissed it as a joke and went on to write and shoot the film. Before the release is when they found out that Rai was serious about the title. It was eventually named Trishul (1978), validating Puri’s another point about how certain movies are named not by taking their content into consideration but through one, abstract randomness, and two, producers’ whim.

Before meeting and interacting with him, I had heard about Puri a couple of times. But I never knew that he had won awards for his dialogue writing in the Farah Khan film or that he has writing credits for some of the top Bollywood songs of recent times. Which makes me – a small-time film reviewer – slightly uncomfortable and this admission embarrassing. Although I make a point – at least these days – to sit through the opening (and ending) credits of movies, talking to him gave me this renewed interest in knowing more about the invisible faces of cinema.

I would readily call it a 2019 resolution but I don’t want to jinx it because I never come around to completing these resolutions. Don’t even ask me what my 2018 resolutions were.

Miscellaneous Stuff We Did

Apart from the sessions with Col and Mayur Puri, we also had a good time with a fun quiz at the end. The IMDb staff had prepared a series of questions that would assess our knowledge of Indian cinema. It’s safe to say that our group came third. (Don’t believe in anyone who tells you how many groups were there in total.)

At the end of the contributor meet-up, each one of us got a nice little surprise. A bag of goodies with IMDb merchandise – something that made me jump up.

A Treat for a Merchandise Fanatic

I think a picture is worth more than I can possibly write about this. Have a look.

IMDb 2018 merchandise
IMDb merchandise and goodies

Here’s a better photo by Dibyayan:

IMDb merchandise
IMDb merch – mug, pillow, pen, and trophy among others

And I’ve been showing off some of them at work. Here’s one, keeping a watch while I write.

IMDb coffee mug
That’s the IMDb mug at my work desk

People who know me even as an acquaintance know how much of a merchandise fanatic and stationery lover I am. Which makes this idea of giving out goodies by IMDb an instant classic and lovable move. It shows how much it cares about contributors, and for all I know, I will be continuing the contribution. (Also, I don’t think I’m ever going to throw that pen away.)

It was obvious why the event was organized, and without stating it here, I can say that it worked 100% on me and the other 18 contributors.

Tips for Aspiring IMDb Contributors

One last section for the aspiring contributors out there. This is because a lot of people have reached out to me when I shared these photos on social media.

If you are someone who likes cinema and would love to contribute information (names, titles, trivia, anything), then here are few tips to help you:

  • Start with this: read the contributor’s charter and create an account
  • Then explore the contributor zone
    • Start with rating and reviewing films; creating lists
    • Add any missing information that you may find while browsing the site
    • Then move to areas where IMDb editors need help (called Data Gaps)
  • While adding information, try to make sure you can back it up with a reference. Because no one likes factually incorrect information
  • Join the small contributors’ community on Facebook
  • Join the IMDb community on Reddit and ask questions
  • Develop a niche of your own (e.g.: Anoop and I focus on Malayalam cinema where we create new titles, lists of upcoming films, etc.)
  • Make sure your contributions are consistent
  • Head over to IMDb’s Get Satisfaction portal and engage yourself

Lastly, if everything seems difficult as you start, reach out to me and we’ll discuss over email. (Requests for goodies will be turned down rudely.)

Top 20 contributors on IMDb India
Some of us after the session decided to take a selfie on Anoop’s iPhone.

Conclusion

I think I have covered almost everything that happened at the first-ever meet-up for IMDb (India) contributors. I would easily nominate this experience as one of the top 10 in 2018 for me because when I came back home that day, I was happy. Just plain happiness without any other emotion taking space in my heart or face. My mom even thought that I had found the one. I’m sorry to have disappointed her.

For the past six years, it was just me and my computer adding all these information into the database. But, today, we have a WhatsApp group where we share tips and tricks, some of us have been exchanging movie and TV show recommendations, I know more about how IMDb works, and last day I published my first-ever poll on IMDb. I don’t remember one single event having such a great impact on me all at once. And I’m just happy that I didn’t skip it. Gosh, that would have been a lifelong regret. TN.

Comments

Sony says:

Superb!! Whole day event is discribed very well.

Tejas Nair says:

Hey, thank you so much, Sony. 🙂

hugh-mungus says:

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, kudos to you for documenting it well. Sometimes I think of contributing to IMDb; I enjoy writing and it’d be nice to have a repository of my reviews jotted down and backed up somewhere, but then I remember that IMDb is owned by Amazon, and I just don’t like putting in a effort to make Papa Bezos’s site better. It’s a whole debate, really, this thing where big cos. swoop in and buy out sites for their communities. The same thing’s up with Goodreads, I like that site and I want to add reviews to it but I don’t like my free labour adding value to some corporation’s asset. It’s kinda weird how all these sites are part of a capitalistic juggernaut but users are still encouraged to act like they’re still on a ‘by-the-people/of-the-people/for-the-people’ sort of an online commune. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of awesome people who contribute selflessly but there’s nothing about Amazon owning a site that will make its community cooler. I’d totally contribute to a site which is just a community of like-minded people, but if someone owns that site and uses its awesome existing community as leverage to peddle ads for books and whatnot, I ain’t contributing unless I get paid for it too. I don’t mind being unpaid in a community of other unpaid enthusiasts, but I cannot stomach my unpaid work adding to Amazon’s value. I wish the next time someone makes an awesome online community, they hold out when some $-eyed CEO comes dangling a pot of money.

Ah, well. Nice pillow though.

Tejas Nair says:

Thanks for commenting. The first thing that came to my mind while reading your comment, Hugh, was an incident not so long ago when I used to buy second-hand books from local people on the Internet. One time I told this book seller friend of mine that I prefer to buy books from Amazon because I can get new ones at 30% their cost because the site was running huge discounts. The guy said that I was supporting crony capitalism by not buying books from brick-and-mortar stores and that I was playing a part in their eventual failure. And now you are telling me the same thing although on a different topic. And I completely agree. I understand all of it and yet I choose to use IMDb as well as Goodreads. One day maybe I’ll completely migrate to Letterboxd and LibraryThing and that day will come sooner now I think. Thanks.

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