Bristol father of two is Hollywood movie website entrepeneur
HE is one of the most powerful men in the international film industry, a true internet pioneer – and one of Bristol's best kept secrets.
Col Needham spends a large chunk of his working life attending glittering film premieres and rubbing shoulders with Hollywood royalty but he is never happier than when he is popping to the cinema at Cribbs Causeway with his wife, Karen.
The 43-year-old father of twin teenage girls runs one of the world's most successful and popular websites from a detached house in a quiet cul-de-sac in Stoke Gifford and it is hard to believe that this unassuming man holds such incredible sway.
The website he founded 20 years ago – the Internet Movie Database – has an astonishing 100 million users and its immense popularity is showing no sign of slowing down any time soon.
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And just as important the site has grown into one of the most important tools in the film industry – the opinions of its army of movie fans can make or break careers in Hollywood.
He said: "Me and Karen have this tradition of going to see a film together every Tuesday lunchtime. I love the idea of being in the cinema with all these people who haven't got a clue who I am but half of them have probably decided to go and see the film because they have read about it on my website."
He added: "Part of my job is going to film premieres and festivals and the feeling of being on the red carpet with Meg Ryan walking in behind you really is quite strange.
"I took my daughters to the premiere of the new Narnia film in Leicester Square a couple of weeks ago and it was magical. There was snow falling and the stars were all there.
"I get to play cool dad and introduce my daughters to film stars. When we got into the cinema there were two seats in front of us draped in gold. Two buglers came on to the stage and then the Queen came in and sat down in front of us, it was quite an amazing moment. It is times like that when you have to pinch yourself."
Search for any film on the internet and IMDb will be the first site on the list of results. The website is for film fans and is put together by film fans. Anything you ever wanted to know about movies can be found on IMDb and probably a whole lot more as well.
But the real power of IMDb is in the service it offers to film industry professionals for a fee. The IMDbpro site has become the industry guide and most importantly of all users who pay that little bit extra get to see exactly what film fans across the world are searching for. That information is pure gold and can make or break careers in the notoriously tough industry.
Col said: "I have been told that when people ring up for an appointment with someone important in Hollywood the personal assistant or secretary checks where they are ranked on IMDb before their call is put through."
Col was brought up in Manchester and is only too happy to describe himself as a geek. He still has a northern accent and makes a point of making a cup of tea for all of his visitors.
He said: "I got my first computer for Christmas in 1979 when I was 12, it was a Science of Cambridge Mark 14. I have always been into technology and film and I can still remember going to see Stars Wars, it had a massive affect on me.
"When I was a teenager I was writing video games. I used to sell them to computer companies and that kept me in all the things a teenagers needed like clothes and 12-inch singles."
Col met his wife at sixth form college and decided to study at Leeds University before moving down to Bristol to take up a job as a software researcher with Hewlett Packard.
At the same time he had began to compile his own personal list of film trivia which was later to become the internet site.
The couple share a love of films and as you would expect the man's knowledge is encyclopaedic. His favourite director is Alfred Hitchcock and his favourite film Vertigo.
As a young man every time he watched a film, of which there were plenty, Col would record the details for posterity on his computer. He freely admits that the project became something of an obsession, one that has changed the shape of his life.
He said: "It hit its peak in about 1990 before the girls came along. We used to go to the cinema a lot and watch films on TV and video. I think I was watching more than a thousand films a year.
"There is still a box of videos somewhere in the attic where I used to record the credits at the beginning and end of films so I could take the details down. I think I worked it out that you get about 300 on one tape.
"I have always done this because I love films and I never thought of it in a commercial way, after all I had a very good day job at the time."
He proudly admits that he was one of the first people in the country to have an email address which dates back to 1985.
In the late 1980s he was holding conversations with like-minded souls from around the world about their favourite films and actors.
A chance e-mail encounter in 1989 with a film fan in California led Col to decide to publish his own personal database on-line. The list was published once a month and fellow fans could log on and download it to their own computers.
The first set of software was published in October 1990 and IMDb was born. With the emergence of the web the site evolved and became interactive but it was managed by a group of 20 volunteers.
Col said: "I have always done this because I love film. The idea is to point people who like films into the right direction.
"I have always wanted to share my love of films and help people find things they might want to watch themselves.
"The growth we were getting on the site when we first launched was incredible, we were literally doubling the number of users every month."
IMDb became a company in 1996 and the 20 volunteers who helped run the site were all given shares. The first time all 20 met up in the same room was the day the papers were signed.
Two years later Amazon, then an emerging online bookseller, came calling and a deal was struck which saw Amazon buy out the site but left Col in charge.
He said: "The day we sold to Amazon was the day we bought the house in Stoke Gifford. All 20 of the original volunteers were offered jobs. It is crazy when you look back at it but some of them were still not convinced that we could make a go of it and decided to keep on with the day jobs."
Col is incredibly proud of IMDb and is also a vice-president of Amazon – a firm which he feels fiercely loyal to. He still works from his house in Stoke Gifford but the family have moved out to a new home.
It does seem more than a little odd that the headquarters of such a massive global phenomenon is run from a family home in a Bristol suburb.
The house is still very much a family home, complete with living room and the inevitable huge TV screen, but IMDb is about to open its first office in Bristol.
Col's job as chief executive of a global company is to oversee future strategy, make sure the advertising keeps rolling in, provide a public face to the world and to make sure his creation stays true to its roots.
The delicate matter of money never really arises but this is a man who was paid in shares in Amazon for the ownership of IMDb and the future looks even rosier with internet streaming overtaking DVD and Blu Ray as the way we will consume film.
Col is not the sort of man to flaunt his wealth – there are no flashy cars in the driveway. He is at his happiest sitting back and watching a film with his wife and kids.
His wife Karen, a trained teacher, is a volunteer at the local church and his daughters are halfway through their sixth form studies in Bristol.
He said: "I have lived in Bristol for half my life and I love it here. It is a great place to live and we have a network of friends here.
"I do a lot of travelling with my work but if I am honest I prefer to be at a home with the family."