When I was small, I didn’t have social networking sites – I had IMDb. It was the first website I ever visited, and was my introduction to the marvels of digital history. It allowed me to pursue one of my favorite hobbies, cross-referencing film encyclopedias, with just a few keystrokes. I still have the printout for the first actress I looked up, Cyd Charisse. The current iteration of IMDb doesn’t look much like a digital history site – there’s a lot of celebrity news and gossip, but the core is still there, available for the idle Google-er to find out the name of that guy from that thing that we saw that time, and irresistible for people for whom knowing the identity of the recording engineer on Untamed could be vital information. This post will focus on IMDb and its alternate universe twin, IBDB, as digital history, and I’ll try not to get too weird about my attachment to what is, essentially, fancy Google.
Of the two sites discussed here, IMDb has a much more enticing public-facing side – it is pretty much all bells and whistles, with a small search bar at the top that provides access to the actual database functions. The rest of the page is entertainment news stories, box office numbers, IMDb curated content like photo galleries, and IMDB-created content, like interviews with stars. The overall look of the page is busy, but professional and readable. It is worth noting that this is not the IMDb I remember from childhood – the color scheme is the same, but the overall feel was clunkier and more HTML-y. They have moved way up in the world and are now owned by Amazon, so any monetary barrier between them and a web designer has probably gone the way of the dodo.
This move upmarket is not just illustrated in the web design. The IMDb that hooked me as a child was a very different and much wonkier place. The current homepage list of showbiz articles culled from around the internet is a list of “breaking news” of sorts, but there used to be a “Hit List” of articles at the bottom of the screen that included funnier, stranger articles, culled from odd corners of the internet.
The site has also gotten rid of the “IMDb poll,” the “Quote of the Day” written in the style of a screenplay, and the list of trailer links on the homepage (there are still trailer links, but they are to upcoming films, whereas there used to be curated lists of classic trailers mixed in with the new ones). The search function has changed over the years as well – it still has most of the advanced settings (though I think that the cross referencing functions used to be more intuitive), but they are collapsed into a small bar on the homepage and a short form on a separate page. However, the site still has a major user component: much of the data is entered by contributers, not the company (user reviews, trivia, synopses, biographical facts). This means that behind the glossy finish there are a team of film dorks entering the data that other viewers look up. The site has always worked like this – but the difference is that the site as a whole now caters to the type of person who would search for data, not the type of person who would enter it.
Many of the new features are more appealing for the casual user, one who would be more interested in the type of news they get from other popular entertainment sites in the same place where they can conveniently look things up, and are less interested in interacting with the site. The old features are geared towards film dorks. The “Truly Trivial” and “Quote of the Day” sections didn’t have an attribution to a particular movie – so a user could guess and then click a link to find out if they were right (I did this every day), and the IMDb poll assumed you actually had an opinion on somewhat niche-y topics like dark horse Oscar nominees. This might sound like a nostalgic digression, but I think that the site makes an interesting case study – we talk about making things accessible for every member of the public, but more often than not, that isn’t possible, and we end up making a choice about what type of “public” we want.
If the current iteration of the IMDb homepage is a box of sparkly trinkets designed to get you to engage with sponsored content, the IBDB homepage is like a rack of brochures at a hotel – you can stop and take a look, and the management will be happy if you do, but they’re not really going to put any kind of effort into it. The names of shows currently playing on Broadway are presented on the homepage in a bullet point list, with no pictures and no ceremony. The catchiest element on the homepage is the crawl at the bottom of the screen that displays famous actors that were born and productions that opened on the current day in history. Again, they are live links with no pictures, and they scroll by pretty fast (admirably, they present a very wide range of actors – many of the birthdays are actors born in the 19th century). This no nonsense attitude continues throughout the rest of the site: some of the pages for actors or shows may be jazzed up with a small graphic of a headshot or poster – but most are just pages of text (the site has a policy that you can only submit headshots for yourself, so that explains why a lot of people do not have one). This site is the internet equivalent of unsalted butter on whole wheat toast and oh my God I love it so damn much.
The look of the site makes total sense when you think about where it comes from. IMDb is owned by a media conglomerate – IBDB is most certainly not, and honestly, thinks you are a bit gauche to even suggest such a thing. IBDB is run by the Broadway League, the trade association that represents Broadway producers, general managers, and theater owners, among others. It is supported the Theatre Development Fund, a nonprofit that, among other things, tries to make theater more accessible, and honest to blog this site gets public money from the New York State government. Currently their only advertiser is a publicity campaign to get people to go to more theater. This makes a big impact on the content – not just because they don’t have the kind of obligations to sponsors that IMDb has (or the money for flashy web design upgrades), but also because it means that there is more of a focus on the search features themselves. The different elements of the advanced search are available in tabs along the top of the screen, and the only other links are to information about the site and their social media pages.
The focus on the search is a little troubling, because certain elements of that search are not amazing. There have been some recent improvements, but it used to be that if you made one typo, the search would return nothing (i.e., if you typed “the Siegfeld Follies – zilch). There is now a “Did you mean” section, but in my experience, that mostly serves to make the user scream “You know what I meant!” at their computer. Usually, I find IBDB results by googling “IBDB [name of thing I want]” so I don’t have to interact with their search at all. It also could really use an “advanced search” bar that combines different options. However, the content of the site more than makes up for any searching shortfalls. If you want to know who was in a movie, you can watch that movie again – but you can’t go back and see the 1917 revue Over the Top. IBDB has cast lists for thousands of obscure shows, but it doesn’t stop there – it includes listings for crew members for many of these shows – information that few other sources write about. Saying it is invaluable for theater research is a serious understatement.
The real problem with IBDB is not the search, but rather some features that are harder to fix. IBDB has a lot of different sources for its information, but one of the biggest ones is opening night theater programs. This presents a some inherent problems. First, while IMDb usually enters the cast onto the page of a film with the stars listed first, IBDB often follows the order that the actors appear in the program, which is frequently in order of their appearance onstage. This is fine for a play like Romeo and Juliet where everyone knows who the main characters are, but more complicated for a musical like The Drowsy Chaperone, where the eponymous character is not the protagonist, and many IBDB pages do not have plot descriptions.
The more significant problem is that the cast list of a Broadway show is fundamentally a different document than a cast list of a movie. The credits of a movie are a final statement, but the opening night program is just the first act. If a production is successful, every one of these actors will change, and there will be multiple other actors playing the same roles in touring productions. For some shows, IBDB includes the tour (but only some types of tour), but almost none include replacement casts. This is something that is hard to remedy, but presents a roadblock to research, and reinforces the perception that the cast on opening night is the only cast that matters. It may sound like a weird, insider-y problem, but, then again, IBDB is a weird, insider-y site.