Saturday, February 17, 2007

Flixster vs. IMDb

Much as I love The Internet Movie Database, it's fair to say that it hasn't changed that much in recent years, either in appearance or functionality. Don't believe me? Check out the site as it was back in October 2000 (courtesy of the Internet Archive Wayback Machine) and then play spot the difference with the current site.

Whilst there's certainly something to be said for the 'if it ain't broke' approach, the IMDb's reluctance to mess with a winning formula has created space for a new kind of online movie database to take things in a different direction.

Launched in January 2006, but largely kept under the promotional radar until last November whilst the site was developed, Flixster is hoping to be that new direction. Unable to compete with the IMDb in terms of comprehensiveness, it's key differentiator is that it places its users (rather than the movies) centre-stage.

Whilst music-lovers have been spoilt for choice with regards to social networking sites, film buffs have been somewhat under-served in the Web 2.0 department. It's not that the IMDb is without any interactive features (it has ratings, personalised showtimes, message boards, polls), they're just not very well executed or integrated with the rest of the site. Not so Flixster, which has taken every opportunity to weave its users into the fabric of the site.

Below is a look at some key areas of functionality and how the two sites compare.


Ratings are at the heart of the Flixster offering. In addition to rating movies you've seen (a feature which the IMDb also offers), Flixster encourages you to flag films you've not yet watched with either 'Want to see it' or 'Not interested', not only allowing the site to build up a more detailed picture of your viewing preferences but also generating a list of films you're keen to see, both at the cinema and on DVD. Whilst it is possible to create similar lists using the IMDb's cumbersome 'My Movies' area, it's a laborious process compared with Flixster's one-click approach.

Another nice feature from Flixster in the ratings area is the ability to see how your community of friends rated a particular movie. You can also see the gender split on any given title (the IMDb does have demographic breakdowns of its ratings but they're tucked away on a separate page).


Both sites offer Amazon-style 'Like This? Try This' recommendations. The difference is that Flixster's recommendations can be voted on by other users (thumbs up or thumbs down), whereas IMDb users only have the option of disagreeing with a recommendation (i.e. they can't endorse an existing suggestion). Recommendations are, by their nature, subjective but I have to say I was more convinced by Flixster's suggested alternatives to Magnolia (Boogie Nights, Short Cuts and 21 Grams) than by the IMDb's (The Living and the Dead, Blue Velvet and The Devil's Advocate).

Flixster also enables you to recommend a title to specific friends in your network or you can make use of its simple (but awesome) 'Movie Night Planning Tool' which compares the films you want to see with those your friends have earmarked, to come up with a list of mutually agreeable titles from which to plan your evening's viewing.


The IMDb's News area features syndicated celebrity news from the World Entertainment News Network and movie news from Studio Briefing. Flixster adopts more of a digg approach, allowing users to submit and rate news stories from anywhere on the web. The quality may be variable but it feels a whole lot more dynamic.


Whilst Flixster is unlikely to win any design awards anytime soon, its interface is a damn sight more visually appealing than the IMDb which is in desperate need of a lick of paint. An intriguing design element of Flixster is user-submitted 'skins' themed around particular movies or actors, which can be applied to your own profile. Admittedly some of them look like bad MySpace pages but you can always switch them off.

There's a lot of talk about machine-readable URLs these days. Well, Flixster gets bonus points for having human-readable URLs. Unlike the IMDb, which assigns each entry a number, Flixster uses the actual name of the film in the URL (appending year of release where there's more than one title) making it easy to find pages without having to use the site's search engine.


The one area in which the IMDb comfortably walks it is quality and quantity of information. Having existed in some form since 1989, the IMDb is unrivalled as a source of movie data and it's unlikely that Flixster will ever catch up in this area (not least because it isn't currently capturing cast and crew information beyond the names of the director and lead actors). Whilst I can understand why Flixster has opted not to go head-to-head with the IMDb in this area, it does put a ceiling on potential converts, with serious movie buffs unlikely to put up with Flixster's more superficial treatment of production information.


The IMDb's primary discussion forum is its message boards, although it also allows users to submit comments (which tend to be more like reviews). Flixster doesn't have a message board but does offer separate reviews and comments sections. In terms of quality of debate, the IMDb currently has the edge, with Flixster's demographic skewing the conversation towards discussion of the attractiveness of the leads.

Associated media

Their approach to associated media is another point of difference between the two sites. Whilst the IMDb only hosts photo galleries for a selection of entries and links to external photos and A/V clips, Flixster invites users to upload images and videos for any entry in the database.


Whilst the IMDb is undoubtedly more comprehensive and authoritative, Flixster has taken advantage of starting with a blank piece of paper in a Web 2.0 world and has outflanked the IMDb on almost every aspect of interactivity. I will doubtless continue to use the IMDb as a reference but suspect I will be spending more of my time on Flixster.

It's a cautionary tale for other established Web 1.0 players tempted to rest on their laurels. There are no sacred cows in the online space and if another site is providing a better service then your users will defect. Flixster is still not in the same league as the IMDb in terms of usage, but it has seen rapid growth in the past 12 months whilst traffic to the IMDb has remained flat.

Right, I'm off to play The Never-Ending Movie Quiz...

UPDATE: Somewhat inevitably, the IMDb began rolling out a phased redesign (starting with the name and title pages) just two days after I posted this. In development for almost a year, the changes are mostly cosmetic at this stage although they've still managed to cause consternation amongst a section of IMDb die-hards. Kudos to Col Needham (founder and managing director of the IMDb) for his full and frank responses to the criticisms on the site's message board and for attempting to ease the transition by keeping the old design up for a while. It's a useful reminder of just how resistant to change an established user base can be.


Anonymous said...

And such a neat name for you - you couldn't resist it!

Anonymous said...
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