Interview with Jim Smith – founder of Moviechat.org
Earlier this year IMDb announced that they were to close their message boards. For movie enthusiasts who frequented the IMDb message forums this spelled disaster. Where else would they be able to discuss the minutiae of the movie or tv show they just saw? Other IMDb forum users – the lurkers, the fact finders, the occasional posters, soon came to realise, too, that it really was the end to this unique platform.
Someone simply had to step in and do something about it before it was too late. Thankfully someone did. A man by the name of Jim Smith who created www.moviechat.org, an IMDb forums alternative.
In what seems like no time at all, then, an alternative version of IMDb, with message boards for every movie, tv show, actor and actress, has been created.
You read that right: ALL of the IMDB message boards. Archived. Saved. If it was on IMDb when it closed in mid February 2017. You’ll find it all on Moviechat, along with every new film, tv show and actor since.
Film Forums caught up with Jim to find out why and how he did it, and discovered how The Matrix changed his life forever…
FF: Did you always want to build a movie forums website or was this purely necessitated by the closure of the IMDb message boards?
JS: Well, I’ve always been a film fanatic. Growing up I watched every single movie I could get my hands on. This was, of course, before the days of internet…when you had to go out to Blockbuster or another DVD rental store, so it was a much harder process! Not only did I watch films, I kept a journal and I wrote down my critique of the film and basically had a personal rating system of every single film I’d watched. It started out on paper and eventually transitioned to Excel! I’ve always loved discussing films, so as you can imagine IMDb was a pretty big thing for me once I discovered it; the forums and community to discuss movies with millions of people from around the world.
I remember when I heard that IMDb were shutting down the forums I was, frankly, p*****d. I thought ‘What am I going to do now once I’ve watched a movie? Who am I going to discuss it with? Am I going to have to rely on IMDb’s Facebook page and pray that they post a topic about the movie that I just watched so I can comment on it?’ My background is in web development so I thought, well, I have the time and the skills to build an alternative or replacement to the IMDb forums so I quickly started on creating MovieChat and launched it 2-3 days before the IMDb forums officially shut down on 20th February 2017. We didn’t have a ton of time to do marketing on the existing IMDb forums but we did get enough people to spread awareness through word of mouth and online, so we could build a nice community. As of August 2017 we’re at a point where we’re currently getting just over 1 million pages views per month, we have just under around 6-7000 registered users on the site, and a pretty nice thriving community that is continuing to grow.
We’re launching a blog pretty soon and we’re in the process of hiring writers, so we’ve got a few writers lined up. We’ll be doing things like movie reviews, tv episode reviews and recaps, and things like Top 10 lists etc.
FF: Have you been in touch with anyone from IMDb about the site… To see if they would, perhaps, link to yours or maybe just give your site the seal of approval from their perspective?
JS: Well I had a buddy who used to work at Amazon (who own IMDb) and had contacts within the IMDb message boards. Before I began the MovieChat site I asked whether creating the alternative IMDb message boards website was viable – are Amazon going to veto this etc.? Basically the response that I got this to this was: no, they wanted there to be an alternative to their existing community members and they would love it if someone would be build a platform like that. So, yeah, we at least got a green light to go ahead with this project. Whether they would link to our site I don’t know. It’s probably unlikely but we’d be open to it of course.
FF: How far back have you managed to go in terms of archiving/saving the message boards?
I noticed that some boards seem to only go back 11 months – 1 year… Are you still working on this?
JS: We are actually using archiving.org’s team right now (who, believe it or not, archive every single page on the internet!). They had a volunteer group of 40-50 individuals who, over the course of the several weeks prior to the IMDb message boards shutting down, archived the majority of the pages. We sourced all of our existing data from that archive. We started out thinking we’d just do it ourselves, but soon realised that it was better to use the archiving.org resource. It’s a more complete archive than we originally had.
All of our movies and tv shows should have all of the message boards that IMDb had. If you see a page’s message board that only goes back 11-12 months, that is most likely because IMDb purged or deleted everything before that mainly due to the sheer volume of comments. If you look at a rarer movie, or one that hasn’t attracted a large amount of comments on the boards, you’ll find the comments date back many many years.
FF: Have you found moderating moviechat.org especially challenging?
JS: With any social media media or discussion platform – whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or, indeed, MovieChat, any time you have users posting user-generated content there are going to be few bad apples unfortunately. We’ve all seen the extreme content on platforms like Facebook who are clearly struggling on the moderation side. It’s a fine line between how much you moderate and freedom of speech. Straddling that line is one of if not the biggest challenge for any social media platform and, certainly, for MovieChat. Most of our users are very respectful, engaged, and genuinely want to discuss and talk about movies and tv shows. I’d suggest that less than 1% want to troll, post inappropriate content etc. and of course you have a duty to allocate resources to moderate that. What I would say about MovieChat is that we have a volunteer team of moderators who have been doing a fantastic job of straddling that fine line. I can certainly see why IMDb may have struggled with that! At Moviechat we are trying out a bunch of ideas to make moderation a better experience and I think we can only improve as we go forward.
FF: Is this your day job or is moviechat.org currently a sideline/hobby for you?
JS: I’m spending most of my time on it right now. There’s a lot of opportunity to grow; we have a good community of former IMDb forum members and, quite frankly, an awful lot of former IMDb forum members are simply not aware that we exist as a resource to be used in the same way. We have captured a lot of the IMDb “power users” – members who were on IMDb every day, sometimes several times a day, posting, starting threads, debating etc. What we haven’t captured yet is IMDb casual users, people who go on IMDb maybe once per week. Again, they are simply not aware that our website exists. They probably go onto IMDb and, where they might previous have scrolled down to check out the message boards and maybe spend a few minutes reading through threads to get answers to questions they had about a movie, or to post an obscure question perhaps, now they can’t find the option, frown and shrug, and leave it at that. MovieChat is here to plug that gap.
FF: What films have you given an IMDB 10/10 rating – if any?
JS: Very good question! I’m possibly a little unique in that I very rarely if ever give a movie a 10/10 rating. I have a lot of buddies where it seems like every single movie they see they say “that’s a 10 out of 10!” I try to really hold true to the 1-10 scale, so 5/10 is an average movie for me. A lot of people probably give a 6/10 or maybe a 7/10 for the average movie. For me… I don’t think I’ve ever actually given a film a 10/10! I’ve given a few 9/10s.
FF: What is your favourite film then, or at least one or two that come to mind now?
JS: I’d have to say The Matrix (1999). I know a lot of people have different opinions about that, but it changed the way that I look at the world. At the time I was very interested in the materialistic world and trying to climb the corporate ladder and once I’d seen that film it really changed my perspective of just the way that I live life.
FF: What are your favourite films so far in 2017 and what are you looking forward to most for the rest of the year?
JS: 2017 is shaping up to be a very good year for movies. At the start of the year I was a little pessimistic about the release calendar but so far this year I’ve been particularly impressed with Wonder Woman (2017). I know there are a lot of opinions on that but quite frankly a lot of people have overrated it in my view. But, putting that aside, along with the gender stuff, it is a fantastic superhero movie. Coming up later in the year I’m actually really excited about 2 films off the top of my head. One is Blade Runner 2049. I remember seeing the original when I was growing up. When I initially saw the trailer and saw that Ryan Gosling had been cast – well, I was a little taken aback by that! Gosling appears in films like La La Land, he isn’t exactly known for his roles in sci-fi movies. So I’d say the jury is still out on it, but given that Harrison Ford is going to be in it, I can’t help but be excited by it.
The other one to watch out for later in the year is Ready Player One, this VR focused movie set in a dystopian future from Steven Spielberg. It’s this alternate reality and I’m super excited about it and I can relate to it a lot given that I live in New York and I have used VR quite a lot.