Film Reviews in the Digital Age and the History of IMDB

Times of great change are always appealing to historians – if only because change gives us much more to talk about than its sibling, continuity. Changes over time, large or small, is the bread and butter of history. Perhaps that is why the advent of digital society is so intriguing. We've talked before about some of the transformation of digital society. Today we can witness a vast array of transformations all happening at once. Even seemingly innocuous facets of our lives have been affected, such as how we choose what movies to see.

At the risk of ageing some of our audience, there was a time when film critics and their newspaper articles guided the viewing decision of hundreds of thousands if not millions of North Americans. In the 1960s and 70s, film critics entered the popular consciousness for the time first as arbiters of films. Critics could sometimes make or break a film by shepherding newspaper and magazine readers into or away from theatres with their choice words. Once involved in the ever-esoteric activity of judging art, critics became bellwethers for audiences.   

Great reviewers like Pauline Kael or Roger Ebert arose in the late 60s and 70s, writing for the New York Times or the Chicago Sun-Times. Kael's harsh criticisms of otherwise well reviewed movies, like the Sound of Music, defined a generation of critics. She fit perfectly the stereotype of a hard-nosed critic rejecting the ebb and flow of popular opinion. Meanwhile, Ebert was eventually picked up by PBS for television reviews alongside Gene Siskel.“Siskel & Ebert” became a household name, an astonishing feat for a pair of critics. They became part of regular viewing for many Americans (and Canadians!) and their thumbs up system of reviews was quickly popularized. Two thumbs up for a good movie was easy to remember. Ebert is so popular that since his death in 2013, the city of Chicago has announced plans to erect a bronze statue of him. For historians, who are well familiar with the host of inconsequential figures with now-ignored statues from the 18th or 19th century scattered across the metropolitan centres of Europe or North America, the Ebert statue will be either a telling sign of what is important or a comment on the price of bronze.

Kael, Ebert and other reviewers all helped manufacture a sense that audiences required a singular, well written authority to help guide their viewing tastes. Though traditionally a print discipline, Ebert and Siskel's switch to television really popularized their work. Being transmitted into homes every evening reached more than the smaller number who picked and read the film section of a newspaper. As with many other areas of society, film critics adapted to new forms of media. Today is no different. The rise of the internet, like it has for newspapers, cartoonists, authors, and even historians, drastically changed how we judged films. Not so much with the help of the individual writer or television presenter, but now with direct rankings based on hundreds or thousands of opinions.

Surely you've visited the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) at least once? To find its earliest beginning we have to go back to the late 1980s before the internet was even established.

One of the forerunners of the Internet was Usenet. It began as an experiment between linked computers at Duke University and the University of North Carolina in 1979. Like the modern internet, it was a network of servers (computers) that linked together on which users could post messages to “newsgroups.” You could log onto to your local server, post a message, and then that server would copy it to servers around the world as your message slowly spread across the “net” as various users turned on their servers. (Don't be fooled though, internet stands for internetwork, not the net analogy used here.) If you were subscribed to a newsgroup, you could create a new document, a “thread,” or reply to ones posted by others. The dial-up internet of the age couldn't handle pictures, so it was essentially text based internet forums – websites only arrived with the creation of the Internet. Non-text content could be sent, but a small picture of say 500 Kilobytes (K) would have to be sent in pieces, each piece becoming a posting on the newsgroup. Since one post could not exceed 64K, it would take 15-20 posts to construct one small image of 500K! To put that in perspective, a normal film streamed from Netflix is probably around 700 Megabytes, or 716,800 Kilobytes. We also gained terms from Usenet familiar to internet users today, like FAQ (Frequently Asked Question) and “spam” and “trolling.” Usenet newsgroups are now archived by Google Groups, and exist as a valuable historical record of the early internet age.

It is as easy as a Google Search to look years worth of communications. Deep in the archives of the newsgroup rec.arts.movies, we find the first inkling of a major step forward in English-language film criticism: the beginning of the Internet Movie Database.  Using Usenet, Chuck Musciano began asking users to vote on movies. As the votes rolled in, he started compiling averages and updating it with new movies. At the same time, other Usenet users started compiling lists of favourite actors and actresses and the movies in which they had appeared. By the mid-90s it had grown to include producers, directors and composers, and in 1996 was finally launched as one of the world's first websites,  You can find a review of its history here.

IMDB slowly became the go-to site for anyone searching information on movies. With smartphones, it's often used to solve the tip-of-the-tongue answer about that-guy-who-was-in-that-movie-with-the-costume-and-Robin-Williams. (it was Death to Smoochy and Edward Norton) It also continues to rank movies based on user-submitted opinion, just as it did in 1989. Other sites, like Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic, have mirrored IMDB's success with their own comprehensive rating system that is split between site users and critics. The A.V. Club offers detailed reviews of movies alongside review of other elements of popular culture. All of these websites reflect the choice of a new generation of cultural consumers who don't want to necessarily read long anachronistic judgements of film quality like Pauline Kael once produced, though they certainly still exist. The internet has led to the “democratization” of film review, where thousands can voice their opinion and it can be distilled into a number: 7.5/10, for instance. Blogs, Facebook and Twitter, have all created very easy ways to communicate personal film reviews as well.

Now, this topic is not exactly the most historically significant one. Still, it's one that is interesting to us as historians. Besides being a fascinating use of the internet as a historical source, the rise of IMDB alongside the Internet in the early 90s demonstrates how quickly the work of a few individuals snowballed into a much larger and more comprehensive project. The Internet expanded its reach and purpose a hundred-fold. Film criticism is now a dying industry, alongside the newspaper journalist and editorial cartoonist. As the way we consume movies changes from renting movies to streaming them online from Netflix, it reflects the same change film criticism underwent years ago. The history of IMDB might one day be studied as yet another example of the change from print to digital.


Author's Note: A reader has pointed out that we should have said IMDB predates the World Wide Web, not the Internet - which refers to the entire network and its services.