A lot happened at the movies in 1990. Thanks to “Pretty Woman,” Julia Roberts became a star. “Goodfellas” came out. In “Reversal of Fortune,” Jeremy Irons turned “You have no idea” into a drop shot that Roger Federer on his best day couldn’t return. Javier Bardem, Russell Crowe, and Julianne Moore made their film debuts.
Another debut took place in 1990. It was the year’s most momentous movie event, not that anyone knew it at the time. Nor did it happen at the movies. True, it involved a screen, or screens, but not the kind found in theaters. Go to your computer bookmarks and chances are you’ll find it there: the Internet Movie Database
Thirty years ago this month IMDb went online. The date was Oct. 17, 1990. The site, which includes television episodes as well as theatrical releases, has listings for more than 6.5 million titles and 10.4 million individuals. It also has a by-subscription sibling, IMDbPro, for professionals — and fans who like to feel like professionals.
IMDb began as a posting on a Usenet group (remember those?). Called “Those Eyes,” it was dedicated to actresses with beautiful eyes. It was the handiwork of a Hewlett-Packard programmer in Bristol, England, Col Needham. Today, Needham is the founder and CEO of IMDb, which has been owned since 1998 by Amazon. Amazon bought it for what now seems like the bargain price of $55 million.
For a certain kind of moviegoer, IMDb isn’t so much a go-to site as a stay-there site. It has become as much a part of the moviegoing experience as popcorn or trailers or the Oscars — maybe more, actually. In addition to finding filmographies and individual credits and upcoming release dates and trivia and goofs, you can watch trailers and find out Oscar information to your heart’s content.
The “Pretty Woman” trailer? It’s there. How many Oscar nominations the movie got? That, too: one (Roberts, for best actress). What about the full list of nominees and winners for 1990? Sure, though maybe looking that up isn’t such a good idea. “Dances With Wolves” won seven, beating out “Goodfellas” for best picture, which took just a single Oscar. That went to Joe Pesci, for best supporting actor. All that’s on IMDb, too.
Back in those antediluvian days, the information-seeking moviegoer was reduced to a handful of reference works: Ephraim Katz’s “The Film Encyclopedia”; Leslie Halliwell’s “The Filmgoer’s Companion” and “Halliwell’s Film Guide”; and various volumes from the indefatigable Leonard Maltin. In a separate category were — thankfully, still are — the several editions of David Thomson’s equally idiosyncratic and indispensable “Biographical Dictionary of Film,” which is to reference as Astaire is to ambulation.
All of those books had their virtues. Several remain in print. Yet none was in any way fully comprehensive, or easily accessible (even if you owned a copy of one of them, it always seemed to be in another room). Or frequently enough updated. Certainly, none of them had hypertext. Remember, it’s 1990 we’re talking about. “Isn’t hypertext some kind of sequel to ‘Tron’?”
IMDb moved to the World Wide Web in 1993. Its success, let alone existence, is unthinkable without the personal computer and Web. That’s obvious. What’s less obvious is that its success is unthinkable without a slightly earlier technological development: the VCR (and, later DVD player — and, now, streaming). This new-found, nearly unlimited availability of past movie and television titles made information about them something more than just a matter of academic interest. A godsend to film buffs, IMDb was — and still is — even more of one to entertainment consumers.
Jeff Bezos knew what he was doing in snapping up the site so soon after it started — and then leaving it alone. (Officially, IMDb’s headquarters are in Seattle, but Needham remains in England.) The synergy between reliable, extensive information about film and television titles, past and present, and the availability for sale or rental of those same titles, was hard to beat. The more consumers knew, the likelier they’d be to spend. The more consumers spent, the likelier they’d be to want to know more.
Impressive as IMDb is as business plan, it has another, far more satisfying aspect — more satisfying, at least, to those truly smitten with the movies. No one movie exists by itself. It relates to others through genre, influence, casting, and so on. A filmography isn’t just a list of titles. It’s a genealogy, a flow chart, a decision tree: a celluloid geography of the imagination.
Writing in the London Review of Books in 2015 about the English thriller “The Long Good Friday” (1980), the critic Michael Wood evoked the special appeal of this movie-assembled cartography with a simple phrase: “the lens of the meantime.”
“There is a special pleasure in seeing films through the lens of the meantime," Wood writes. “We didn’t know in 1980, as we know now, that Paul Freeman, who plays the murdered Colin, would appear the next year in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ [he plays the villainous archeologist] and that Pierce Brosnan, representing the person who kills Colin . . . would go on to become Remington Steele and James Bond. Here he is credited simply as ‘First Irishman.’ ” Nor did we know that just eight years later Bob Hoskins, the film’s star, would be costarring with an animated bunny in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” or that its female lead, Helen Mirren, would go on to become ... Helen Mirren.
The wonder of IMDb is how it not just enables lens of the meantime use: It so addictively encourages it. There they are, waiting to be discovered: all these affiliations, interminglings, cross-pollinations. A click here, a click there, and what will the lens of the meantime, courtesy of IMDb, reveal? As Jeremy Irons might say, you have no idea.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.