IMDB: movie distributor of the future?

IMDB has built a healthy advertising-based business as the online directory for credits on every movie and TV show — as well as one of the top Google results for pretty much every celebrity name and movie/TV title.

But when you’ve got that much traffic and you know your audience is interested in a specific subject, well, you can do a lot more. And IMDB founder Col Needham knows it.

Speaking this week at the South by Southwest conference, he outlined an amazingly ambitious vision: “A play button on every page.”

Sure, there are lots of digital distributors competing in a still tiny space. Plenty of early movers, like Guba, have already gone bust trying. As home networking continues to become a reality, digital distribution is clearly going to become a business, but it’s still far off.

If anyone could make it work, it’s IMDB. It has the brand and it has the traffic. If Needham really adds that “play” button to every page, it will be seen by a massive audience (according to Alexa, IMDB is the 40th most popular site on the Web). And because the “play” button for, say, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is on the “Benjamin Button” page, you already know you’re hitting the right audience without spending a penny on advertising.

According to CNET, Needham knows it’s a difficult goal. IMDB has 1.3 million titles in its directory. Some don’t even exist anymore. Many others don’t have the necessary rights clearance for digital distribution. But apparently it’s his vision and he’s ready to articulate it in public. The question is whether he wants to wait until he has access to more than the several thousand movies being streamed or downloaded by Netflix, Amazon, Movielink, etc. Because if he’s not, he could probably add that “play” button on some of his pages tomorrow.

Nonetheless, a world in which IMDB users can hit “play” for everything would be a revolutionary one. If Hollywood executives are paying attention, they should be salivating. The guy in charge of the biggest movie website in the world is officially screaming “Let me make money for you!

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