Recently I received an email from someone associated with the documentary Thunder Soul thanking me for reviewing the film but urging me to fix a major mistake. Apparently Jamie Foxx does not narrate the doc, in spite of what the IMDb listing claims, and I was guilty of misleading readers and potential viewers. I actually haven’t seen the film -- my write-up on it was not really a review -- so I was just going by information available on that online film reference guide that I and countless others have been using as a primary research tool for years and years. So as far as I figured, it was the fault of the makers of Thunder Soul for not maintaining that the IMDb data is correct (it’s still incorrect, by the way).
Since then, I’ve heard that this error could in fact be a problem with the Internet Movie Database itself, because as with any site that relies on users to generate much of its content, this one suffers from the fact that many users aren’t always 100% accurate with the info that they provide. But shouldn’t filmmakers still be depended on to monitor their own film pages? Probably, though from what I understand based on feedback I’ve received in the past week, a lot of smaller filmmakers have tremendous trouble updating, correcting and even initially listing their movie’s details.
The issue first came to my attention via Michael Parfit, one of the directors of The Whale, a terrific yet under-seen 2011 documentary that I had expected to appeal to a wider audience (albeit for some of the wrong reasons), especially since it was produced by Scarlett Johansson and Ryan Reynolds, who also narrates. “IMDb is a very important site for us,” Parfit tells me via email, “perhaps more than for a major studio film. We often work with people in the industry who are only vaguely aware of our film. The first place they go is to IMDb to get more info. But when you go on IMDb or IMDbPro and look up The Whale, the information you get is, to say the least, misleading.”
Some of his complaints have to do with seemingly nit-picky data that most of us don’t think much about but which is actually a big concern for those on the inside. For example, one of The Whale’s distributors is listed as a production company, which would seem like an easy fix. But often such errors aren’t even noticed immediately, and when they are caught they’re still not quickly amended (the film's "company credits" info remains incorrect).
“Repairs and additions have always taken so long that they’re almost useless when they are finally done,” Parfit says. “When the news of Ryan Reynolds’ involvement in the film came out, and was widely covered, we tried to get his name in the database as the film’s narrator for months -- months! -- before it appeared. At the time we were seeking investors. What must they have thought when they looked on IMDb and did not see the celebrity name we had told them was part of the film? They would not have thought that the highly-trusted IMDb was wrong.”
And monitoring IMDb sites in and of itself seems like a time-consuming job to begin with. Producer Mynette Louie (Children of Invention) tells me that she regularly has to spot and fix instances of background players listing themselves above lead actors. It’s a significant issue for an industry that, she notes, takes great pains to negotiate on-screen credits and their position in relation to other performers. However, the pros with IMDb still outweigh the cons from her perspective.
“When you see people claiming the wrong credit on IMDb or you see credits out of their proper order,” she writes via email, “it feels like our work was for naught. On the other hand, I know how labor and resource-sensitive it would be for IMDb to ensure that only official representatives of a film enter credits for it. So I’m fine living with the minor annoyance of having to check every so often. Overall, the site is an invaluable resource, and for the most part people are honorable when entering their own credits.”
The ironic thing is that while so many barely professional and nonprofessional users can easily update film pages with mistakes, some professionals can’t even get their work listed to begin with. Indian filmmaker Mihir Desai has a few issues with IMDb’s process, particularly for shorts and long-term documentary projects. He tells me that to get a short film listed you have to fill out a huge form and wait many weeks for approval, but according to him a film has trouble being approved if the budget is too small or if it hasn’t had any public screenings. “At a time when film consumption is not just in theaters but through various online mediums like VOD,” he says, “ I feel short films [ought to be more easily] listed on popular movie databases like IMDb.”
Desai also complains that while shorts are more easily listed if they’re qualified through film festival screenings, then IMDb goes from being a free resource to an indirectly paid resource, if you have to play by these rules. Other protocol that must be complied with includes regularly providing IMDb with status updates on films currently in production. Desai experienced this problem with a documentary he’s still working on titled Common Ground. “I can't change the status because the film still is in post-production,” he says. “Next thing I noticed, the film was removed from the database, causing curiosity amongst some of my viewers asking whether the film is shelved. Now I'll have to go through a long process to get it listed again.”
[NEW] Common Thread - Official Theatrical Trailer from Mihir Desai on Vimeo.
Could Desai’s nationality have anything to do with his difficulties? I don’t think it’s as controversial as that might sound, but while surveying people’s issues with IMDb for this article, I was told by others that foreign actors, even those who have received their country’s equivalent of an Academy Award, are regularly denied their own IMDb page. One assumption is that the site just can’t begin recognizing or accepting every last filmmaker, performer or movie from every corner of the globe, if only because the size of the database would get out of hand.
I’ve been noticing more and more with smaller movies, especially docs and especially during film festivals, that they’re harder to find simple information on. I always figured IMDb was the best place to find this material. Yet just this week I wanted to highlight a trailer for a great-looking new nonfiction film called Blood Brother, and I was shocked to find it doesn’t yet have a listing on IMDb. So I asked the producer, Danny Yourd, if he’d been having difficulty getting a page set up for the doc and he said yes. He even supplied me with the reason given by IMDb: the film doesn’t have a solid release date. Which is weird, because a whole lot of films actually listed on the site don’t have concrete release dates either.
Like Louie, I still think IMDb is an excellent reference tool, and maybe it’s just my standpoint but I consistently have more positive experience with the site than negative. Plus, it’s the best resource I have for promoting my own reviews of films, particularly those titles that don’t get a whole lot of coverage. A lot of the traffic I’ve received on reviews of little-seen docs like The Whale, for instance, come from my having one of the only or an early piece linked from the external reviews section. But then, this benefit is partly in relation to the fact that Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t feature most of my reviews on a film’s listing, even if I’ve submitted one, nor do my reviews always have any influence on a film’s Tomatometer rating (as a result I’ve just stopped submitting most of my reviews to the site).
It’s a strange issue that Dragonslayer producer John Baker has taken note of, agreeing there’s a lack of consistency in which publications Rotten Tomatoes recognizes on their site. “They all suck,” he says of review aggregate sites in general, “and it's absurd how much sway they have in the industry. iTunes actually promotes movies more that have better Rotten Tomatoes ratings from what I hear, but if you can't include legit reviews, yet others are included without much justification, it's pretty frustrating.”
He’s not alone. Parfit tells me, “for our film, Rotten Tomatoes has accepted odd review sources and ignored important ones, such as one of the most well-known of Canadian reviewers who is in the RT database and who gave the film a rave review but whose review never appeared on RT. That review would have changed the average rating significantly.”
Parfit also has a problem with IMDb’s external review element, however, given that the site is not as big a resource for critical consensus. So it too can come across as unbalanced and insufficiently representative of a film’s true acclaim. For instance, positive write-ups on The Whale from the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times have not been added to IMDb. Parfit claims that Metacritic hasn't proven to be any better at adequately reporting on a film’s total critical reception.
Back to Rotten Tomatoes, that site is also prone to mistakes regarding film listings and is allegedly even harder to deal with than IMDb when it comes to corrections. Filmmaker Michael Tucker points me to the RT page for his upcoming documentary Fightville, which features a “silly” synopsis that he neither wrote nor approved, and he has no idea where it came from (it appears to have originated at the reference site All Movie). Another documentary director, Mona Nicoara, tells me the RT page for her excellent and under-seen film Our School lists another director’s name, apparently due to an older foreign film having the same English-language title.
“I tried to find a way to edit the entry, or to appeal it,” she says. “Turns out that there is no way to contact Rotten Tomatoes directly with such matters. The help desk menu is not designed for or even friendly towards this kind of correction. The only thing that I could do was to use the general form they have on the help page to contact them. I did that twice. I sent them all the information and references necessary to make the correction in the spring of 2011 and again in the fall of 2011. No response. At some point, I remember messaging them on Twitter. No response. I looked into e-mail contacts for folk working there. In the limited time I've had to play detective all I discovered is that they're hard to come by. I'm at the point where I've frankly given up on solving the matter.”
Our School teaser from Mona Nicoara on Vimeo.
Parfit had a similar experience. “We had a very hard time with Rotten Tomatoes a couple of years ago when our film Saving Luna, which was released only in Canada, was on the site,” he says. “For many months, the synopsis was for a completely different film. Endless letters to the RT help desk changed nothing. Finally, months after we gave up writing, the change was made.”
Then there’s Wikipedia, certainly the most user-dependent reference site of them all and admittedly one that has come a long way from being the tool your teacher forbid you to use as a resource because of its constant inaccuracy. Still, the site continues to have its problems. Parfit mentions that the page for Saving Luna has been filled with misinformation and exaggerated claims provided by someone “with an unfair axe to grind,” much of which remains there, “corrupting public understanding of the story.”
Meanwhile, producer Jen Frankel provides us with another ironic situation. Her company, Wildcard Pictures Corp. runs the WILDsound film festival and seven popular websites, and they have either been denied a Wikipedia page or, in the case of WILDsound, been marked with a disclaimer for not meeting the "notability guidelines for companies and organizations" and a warning that it could soon be deleted as a result. “We're well established in the film world and considered a major screening and writing festival,” she says. “And yet, we're still [not] considered "real" enough to be on Wikipedia because we have no presence in the offline media. An entirely web-based entity, in other words, denies the existence of another entirely web-based entity.”
Are problems like all those mentioned limited to democratic and user-generated sites? Parfit’s issues extend to resources dependent on computer programs, such as Google’s own system for pulling information such as showtimes and reviews during web searches for films. “That looks like a useful service,” he says. “But when The Whale showed recently at several theaters around the country, all the reviews Google showed were for Whale Rider, the 2003 New Zealand film. We suspect that this hurt us, and we tried to work through Google's feedback system to change it with no success.”
It may not be a surprise that films with simple or otherwise non-distinct titles are prone to such problems. Dragonslayer is another obvious example, and Baker reminds me that this award-winning doc may have suffered when IMDb included the wrong art and synopsis on its listing. He also concurs that he has had trouble updating the site correctly and efficiently.
So are sites like IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes less favorable to truly indie films and their talent? Perhaps in the same way Netflix is disappointingly abandoning many smaller distributors, these film resources are also growing too preferential of the mainstream. I know that Rotten Tomatoes was more accommodating with us newer critics and our reviews in the early years, and I have to wonder if my own IMDb listing (as “Chris Porkchop Campbell”), set up for my work on and appearance in a small music documentary called Tour, would have been so easily approved today (and the same goes for the film itself).
It’s a shame that all these respected and relied-on Internet reference tools are not just faulty but are seemingly less accommodating to the independent filmmakers who need their benefits and services most. But IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes and Wikipedia are not necessarily doing any wrong, either. “I don’t think it is the result of any intention at those organizations,” Parfit says. “I think, unfortunately, it is a natural product of the wiki structure, or the wiki-like structure, at some of these places. That means it is not, unfortunately, something easy to solve. But it is another piece of the uphill battle for anyone with a low budget.”
And he still finds it highly ironic that these democratic products of the open Internet that depend on users are not so user-friendly as many traditional corporations when it comes to “customer service” (I guess the correct term would be “user service”?). “It’s apparent that these systems require more professional human oversight,” Parfit suggests, “ before they can be trusted to provide accurate information and to honestly serve individuals and organizations that both need to receive good info and need their own info to be recorded and disseminated accurately.”