“His own quotes are his greatest pleasure.”

I’m going to take this as a compliment: John Perich has written a critique of the Internet Movie Database’s “memorable quotes” section, noting how quality control seems to have declined and wondering when and how it happened.

I can tell him exactly when and how: October 2001. That’s when my association with the IMDb, and my six-year stewardship of its Quotes section, came to an abrupt end, and not an amicable one. The less said about that, the better.

While Quotes Editor, I enforced a style that Perich recalls fondly, one in which quotes were by and large pithy, could stand on their own with minimal context (e.g. stage directions), and stated something truly memorable: something about the human condition, for instance, or something that could whisk the reader right back into the emotional heart of a scene.

During my tenure we had no quotes from movie trailers, no quotes that could not be understood out of context, and few overlong scenes. The ones of those that I did include came from prolific and reliable quote submitters whom I did not wish to alienate by disregarding the work they’d put into transcribing them; and even then, I usually managed to carve them up into separate bite-sized quote morsels.

Problem was (as Perich rightly points out) that ensuring the accuracy and suitability of quotes that IMDb users submitted — in ever-increasing numbers, with an ever-decreasing signal-to-noise ratio — was nearly a full-time job all by itself; and when I agreed to take on the Trivia and Goofs sections too as a favor to one of my colleagues, and then software development on top of that, I was often at the point of despair. I was disappointed but not entirely unhappy when it came time to separate from the IMDb.

I don’t know who has held the Quotes Editor post since my departure, and whoever has, I do not wish to cast aspersions on the job they’ve done. It’s not an easy one, especially if their efforts are split between Quotes and any other part of the site. But as I’ve noted myself over the past few years (with the occasional sigh and sorry head-shake), it’s clear that they’ve abandoned the aesthetic that John Perich and I prefer.

The richest man in town

Earlier today I sold my last shares of Amazon.com stock remaining from Amazon’s 1998 purchase (in cash, stock options, and shares) of the Internet Movie Database, a company I co-founded. This brings to a close an adventure that began as a hobby in the mid-1990’s, that turned into a job, that yielded riches, glamor, excitement, and renown (not to mention tedium, anguish, and heartache, but nothing worthwhile is easy).

At its peak during the dot-com boom, my ownership of Amazon.com was worth millions. Thanks to the dot-com crash and some bad planning, I ended up extracting only a fraction of that value, and I still haven’t entirely gotten over it. But it’s hard to feel too bad: it was a great ride, and with the proceeds we bought some cool toys and took some fun trips. It allowed me to earn practically nothing while launching another startup, where today my wife and several others earn a comfortable living. With Amazon money we had a terrific wedding, got a cozy home, and started an amazing family. Like George Bailey, I am the richest man in town.

Here’s lookin’ at you, Amazon. Thanks for everything.

Greatest hits: Good King Bezos

The story so far: I co-founded the Internet Movie Database and accepted the award at the inaugural Webby Awards ceremony in 1997.

In 1998, the Webby Awards were held at the Exploratorium and we were nominated again. Andrea and I were joined by another IMDb teammate, Jon, who ventured north from L.A. for the show, which was bigger and swankier than the year before. We got “Nominee” t-shirts! And we won again. This time I was ready with a five-word acceptance speech: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” (Ironically, it’s a movie misquote.)

Soon after that, the IMDb was acquired by Amazon.com. Over the next couple of years, as Amazon’s stock price enjoyed its celebrated rocket ride, I joined the happy (but in the words of Beaker, “sadly temporary”) ranks of instant dot-com millionaires.

In 1999, the IMDb team leader, Col, came from England with his wife Karen for the biggest and swankiest Webby Awards yet, held at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco, with a gala reception afterward in the newly renovated City Hall complex in San Francisco. It was the “year of money” — the height of the dot-com boom — and the show was produced on a scale to rival the Academy Awards. (Something should have tipped us off that it was all transitory — for instance, the fact that the screaming groupies who greeted the arriving nominees as we strode along the red carpet were hired ringers.)

The IMDb won yet again for best film site — the only web site to three-peat at the Webbies! Col, Karen, Andrea, and I ran up on stage. Col’s five-word acceptance speech was, “I’m king of the World-Wide-Web!” Later, Amazon.com won for best commerce site; Col accepted that one too. At the very ritzy reception he insisted on carrying both trophies plus the one from the year before — I’d brought it for him to take home — which made a bulky but impressive display and brought us all plenty of attention.

Around that time, I also happened to be on an extended consulting contract with Amazon on behalf of my own e-mail startup, Zanshin. For several weeks I flew to Seattle each Sunday night and returned home on Friday. The contract was going so well that Amazon had made an offer to hire the whole company and relocate us to Seattle. (We ultimately turned down that offer, but only after considering it for a long while.)

It was agreed that I would bring the new IMDb and Amazon trophies to Seattle on my next trip and deliver them to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Here’s the e-mail message I sent to some folks right after I completed that errand. Just a few weeks later he was on the cover of Time magazine as the 1999 Man of the Year.

I just returned from my audience with Good King Bezos, where I dropped off Amazon.com’s two Webby trophies.

He was busy talking with a secretary when the time for my appointment arrived, but as soon as I poked my head into his office (he has no personal receptionist), he leaped out from behind his desk with his hand extended. I took it and shook.

He told me how amused he was by the comment in my e-mail requesting the meeting, where I said that I may become the first person to be acquired by Amazon twice. He asked whether I was now an employee, then noticed my green “contractor” badge. I very briefly explained the whole history to him, at some points causing him to blurt out his trademark boisterous, surprisingly loud laugh.

I unwrapped the trophies and said what a shame it was he didn’t go to the ceremony, but that if he had, his would have been the only recognizable face. Boisterous laugh. We spoke a bit about Col and what a press magnet he was while carrying around three trophies after the awards ceremony (boisterous laugh), and I told him about the female reporters’ flashing eyes (boisterous laugh) and the woman who commented, “You have three penises!” (Extremely boisterous laugh with backward stumble and doubling over.)

He admired the attractive trophies, likening their design to DNA, and I pointed out that they’re each a single helix, so they’re more like RNA. This elicited another laugh, and I found myself thinking that [another CEO I knew] wouldn’t even get it if I said that to him, let alone find it funny.

He thanked me for helping to create and maintain the IMDb, and I thanked him for acquiring us. I said that between that, my book (which appears in Amazon’s catalog), the consulting gig, and the job offers, Amazon appears to have moved to the center of my universe in a surprisingly short time. Very boisterous laugh!

He then asked in all seriousness how he could help us reach a decision about accepting the job offers, and I told him very frankly that location is a big obstacle.

He said that he himself always liked making big moves, going back to when he was in elementary school, where he was not a nice kid. He believed he was smarter than everyone else and he frequently told them so. Everyone thought he was a jerk, so a major move always meant another chance “not to be a jerk this time.”

We thanked and congratulated each other again, shook hands, said what a pleasure it had been for each of us to meet the other, and then I left and he got back to work.

After getting back to my office, I looked in the mirror: distant gaze, beatific smile, (some) white hair — just like Charlton Heston coming down from the burning bush. Is Jeff B.’s personality that powerful? Or was I just really happy about the pizza I ate for lunch?

Greatest hits: The Webby Awards

[Reproduced and edited from e-mail.]

In our last episode, I co-founded the Internet Movie Database. The IMDb team consisted of 15 or 20 film geeks scattered around the globe. We were a “virtual company,” coordinating all our activity via e-mail and the rare conference call. Of all the team members, I was the only one in Northern California and thus became the IMDb’s representative at the first Webby Awards ceremony in 1997.

Andrea and I prepared by shopping for new clothes; the invitation instructed us to “dress swanky.” I wrote and rehearsed an acceptance speech just in case the IMDb beat the other four sites nominated in the Film category.

The dot-com boom had not yet really begun in earnest, and so I was surprised to see that many large corporate sponsors were behind the awards ceremony; several “celebrity judges” had voted on the winners; San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown was the official “welcomer”; and it was slated to be telecast on KRON, PBS, and The Discovery Channel. For a bunch of computer geeks it was an unaccustomed level of attention and glamour, but not unwelcome. With this event, the revenge of the nerds had officially begun.

When I saw all the trendy corporate sponsors with their brands emblazoned here and there at the club, I despaired of our chances of winning. I was sure that the fix was in, and only the moneyed sites would be walking away with the awards. The IMDb was strictly an enthusiast site, not part of a big media conglomerate.

We arrived at Bimbo’s 365 Club a little after 8pm. Being nominees, we were allowed to bypass the long queue of people waiting to get in. We saw a line of limousines dropping off dignitaries. Big searchlights shone upwards to mark the location of the event.

Inside, we received our “nominee” badges and drink tokens. We milled about along with a large number of trendy Multimedia Gulch folks. I’d been to Bimbo’s a few times before, but this was the first time I’d seen all the rooms of the club open and in use.

In the main room, a swing band was playing dance tunes. Andrea and I found a table and had a couple of drinks. I took a last look at my speech, which by now I had comfortably memorized.

The event began. Mayor Brown came out to say a few words about how he loved The Web magazine (which had organized the show), how proud he was that San Francisco was hosting this event, the first of its kind, and so on. He told a couple of good jokes, too, which I promptly forgot. Mayor Brown was something of a national celebrity, and in person it was easy to understand his legendary charm.

The mistress of ceremonies, columnist and playwright Cintra Wilson, then came out, made a few very funny remarks, and got the show under way. Her first rule was that, to keep things moving along, winners would be limited to an acceptance speech of no longer than five words! I tore up my speech — oh well!

There followed a rapid-fire sequence of category and nominee announcements, followed by winners and very quick acceptances. Film was the third category and the IMDb won! I ran up on stage and got a kiss and a trophy. Then I thanked our many thousands of contributors over the past seven years (in almost as many words) and ran off. It was very exciting. As I left the stage, some guy pulled me aside and told me to join the “winners’ circle” in the lounge after the ceremony.

The trophy itself was ugly as sin and tremendously heavy — cubical black base made of solid neutronium, near as I could tell, with a badly-etched plaque stuck on it and supporting a freakish oblong colored glass ovoid, which actually looked kind of cool at one point when I set it down on a table and some light came from behind it. The fifteen winners hefted their trophies around the club like Sisyphus. Some who weren’t careful enough with theirs found that the glass ovoid snapped easily off of the base.

Most of what followed was a blur because I was so thrilled at having won. I do remember the presentation for the best Sex site, though. One of the guys from Bianca’s Smut Shack who came up on stage to accept their award was wearing a Hugh Hefner style robe, smoking a pipe. Big laughs.

After the ceremony, we milled about some more and made our way to the lounge, where several camera crews were at work. Production people from various TV shows asked me to stick around so I could be interviewed. While waiting, Andrea and I met Mayor Brown. He was talking to a woman who had also won a Webby. He asked her in what category she’d won. “Politics,” she said. Mayor Brown turned to me and said, in mock confidentiality, “I want to see the people who won for their sex site!” I thought, “He’d get my vote, if I lived in San Francisco.”

Then I met an interviewer from a Web-related program on PBS. I underwent a very short interview in which I waxed enthusiastic about having won, espoused the IMDb philosophy (i.e., by film fans, for film fans), described the site, and said a few words about the team. I managed to work in much of what had been in my acceptance speech.

A still from The Internet Café

After that, there were two more interviews that were almost identical in content. One was for The Discovery Channel’s web show. The other was for C|net. The Discovery folks told me that my footage would be edited into a segment they’d already done about how the IMDb blows away the corporate movie sites. Some PC magazine reporters spoke to me too.

Andrea and I stuck around for a little while longer as the interviewing wound down and music, dancing, and drinking picked up again. Then we left, drove across town, and had a bite to eat at Mel’s Drive-In — suitable, I thought, since it was the setting for a movie (namely, American Graffiti).

It was great fun. Andrea and I resolved to embark on a career of ingratiating ourselves with politicians, celebrities, and captains of industry in order to get invited to events like this all the time. And in fact we did show up for the 1998 and 1999 Webbies…

(…to be continued…)

Make that seven

Another way I’m like Ken: in today’s blog post he writes, “I find that I think in movie quotes about 45% of the time.”

Huh. Just 45%? Maybe Ken is Bob lite! After all, I was the founding movie-quotes editor of the Internet Movie Database.

Quoting dialogue from movies and TV shows has been a cherished way of life for me since age 10, when it occurred to me to place my tape recorder in front of the TV and grab the audio from an episode of Happy Days.

(It was the one where Herb Edelman plays a house burglar. He breaks into the Cunningham house but is foiled by Fonzie, who correctly guesses he’s not armed thanks to this bit of “prison poetry”: “He who steals with a gun in his hand / Gets ten years to life in the can.” Jesus, do I really still remember that???)

After that I taped and memorized The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother and a Robert Klein stand-up comedy special on HBO, but that was just preparation for the day I smuggled a tape recorder into a movie theater to grab the audio from Star Wars. I memorized every word, every sound effect, every note of music. For years afterward, where other kids would sing their favorite radio hits, I would recite scenes from Star Wars. (And I must say: being so intimately acquainted with the audio of that film gave me an appreciation for just what an accomplishment it was. The visual effects today are dated, but the audio created for Star Wars has never been equalled — which, come to think of it, makes perfect sense coming from the director of the sonically innovative predecessors THX-1138 and American Graffiti.)

As time went by it became clear that I had an aptitude for remembering quotable dialogue verbatim — that is, without the usual minor lapses in word choice and ordering that usually afflict movie quoters — even without the benefit of tape recorders. I expanded my movie-viewing horizons and amassed a collection of favorite quotes. Eventually I offered to contribute them to the maintainers of the nascent “rec.arts.movies movie database” on Usenet. The quality and quantity of my submissions (and my corrections to quotes they already had) landed me an invitation to join the team — a team that later became the Internet Movie Database company and later still got bought by Amazon.com.

(…to be continued…)