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Himanshu Khanna would like to create an IMDb rival. IMDb, or the internet movie database, is a 32-year-old one-of-a-kind online film directory owned by Amazon. It is a user-operated site, meaning anyone can add and edit the content on the site if they have an IMDb account (which is as basic as creating an account on any social network). Over the years, users have populated this site with upwards of 477 million data items, including details like the title and release dates of content across multiple genres, cast and crew credits, collection figures, trivia, user reviews, etc. The most popular data item, though, is the user rating.

The IMDb rating of a movie or a show is often the first thing that a cinephile looks at while deciding whether to watch it or give it a miss. A rating above 6 is seen as a green flag mostly. The top-rated 250 movies on the platform are considered a must-watch if cinema is your paradiso. Actors and filmmakers also hire people whose only job is to keep their IMDb pages updated.

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It does make one wonder then why Khanna, a 36-year-old entrepreneur from Delhi who runs a design firm and is building Openvy, a social network for Gen Z, thinks he can disrupt IMDb’s near monopoly in the space. “I’ve now been an IMDb user for two decades," he says. “But for more than a decade, there has been no innovation on the platform which has made it easy for people to game it. There is a business opportunity for whoever creates a similar platform sans the issues," he adds. “It can also benefit from not being associated with one streaming platform–IMDb’s parent company, Amazon, also owns Amazon Prime Video."

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IMDb is also largely a US-centric platform and Khanna believes there’s scope to create an equivalent for India and Asia. In November, the site got less than 5% desktop traffic from India compared to 33.4% from the US, as per data from Similarweb. India was still among the top five countries to send the most traffic to IMDb.com.

Throughout the last two years, IMDb, which claims to get 200 million unique visits every month, has been in the news for either failing to protect the user rating of a few movies from getting manipulated, or for not being able to check fake claims of people who fraudulently add their profile to a popular movie’s credit list. Both have contributed to a drop in its credibility. Over the last three months, imdb.com’s global website ranking has gone down from 62 to 68, says a Similarweb report.

Manipulating a film’s IMDb rating is not a new phenomenon but it has certainly become the norm now, says Navjot Gulati, a writer and director in the Hindi film industry. He first noticed this phenomenon in 2014 when thousands of people deliberately downvoted Gunday, a Yash Raj Films production, on account of a certain community of viewers taking offence to a part of its screenplay. About 81% of its voters gave it a 1-star rating, bringing the average rating to 2.6 on 10.

In the recent past, Hindi movies like Brahmāstra and Laal Singh Chaddha have seen this play out with their ratings where the maximum percentage of users have given these movies a 1-star rating. “Now people manipulate a movie’s rating just to take out their anger at the politics of the people behind a film," says Gulati.

Do ratings matter?

Most industry stakeholders believe that manipulated IMDb ratings have little bearing on the theatre-going audience’s decision to watch a movie on the big screen.

For instance, Brahmāstra: Part One – Shiva saw a surge of 1-star reviews even before the first show had ended, recalls Aditya Mohanty, a Mumbai-based technology entrepreneur. Yet, the film earned over 420 crore in worldwide gross box office collection, as per film trade analysts, and found a place among the top 20 highest-grossing Indian movies of all time.

“A film is a high-involvement product in the age of snackable content," says Vishek Chauhan, a cinema owner from Purnia district in Bihar. “People have started making the extra effort to research on their own to decide whether or not to go to a cinema hall to watch a movie," he adds.

Content released exclusively on streaming platforms has also overcome rating manipulation. In August 2022, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, an international TV miniseries from Marvel Studios, witnessed bad faith “review-bombing" on IMDb. Industry observers called it the latest among a series of instances of rating manipulation of projects (like Ms. Marvel) led by women and/or BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour). Yet, several news reports from the west said that the development did not adversely affect She-Hulk’s viewership.

However, rating manipulation does impact how a movie or a show is remembered, says filmmaker Gulati. “Perception takes a hit and the content’s brand value diminishes over time," he adds. And that can directly influence the career prospects of the people behind a film. “If the ratings of a film you worked on are low, it reduces your chances of getting more and better work," says screenwriter Atika Chohan.

When you google Chohan, her IMDb page is the first search result that pops up. It shows her as the writer of Chhapaak, a 2020 film about an acid attack survivor that is rated 5.3 on 10. Buried under the ‘News’ section of the film’s IMDb page is a report addressing its rating manipulation.

The movie is known to have been downvoted on the site–it has the lowest 1-star rating from over 52% of the voters–after its lead actor Deepika Padukone joined the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi in their protest against the allegedly politically motivated violence in the campus during that period. The actor later made a cheeky comment, inspired by a popular dialogue from the movie, saying, “Unhone meri IMDB rating badli hai, mera mann nahi [They’ve changed the IMDb rating of my film, but they can’t change my mind]."

Chohan, however, cannot afford to brush this aside by passing a snide remark. Very few people know that ratings can be manipulated so easily, she says. “A significant number of people believe the ratings are genuine, which affects the mass opinion on a film. I want the films I’ve worked on to succeed but also to be seen as having succeeded. I’ve not reached that point in my career where I can say I’m beyond all this."

A whole new generation of movie watchers can be influenced into not watching a movie due to manipulated ratings, says Mohar Basu, a former film critic who works at a production company now. Basu underlines that this manipulation is not a systemic flaw but a loophole in the system that everyone is using to their advantage. Ergo, it is open season for rating manipulation with many producers paying click farms to beef up their movie ratings, at times to level out the torrent of 1-stars, and mostly to advertise the high rating for promotions.

“I have heard some agencies claim that they’ll be able to fetch a certain IMDb rating for a project," says Shobu Yarlagadda, co-founder of Arka Mediaworks, producer of the Baahubali film franchise, among others. “You will notice that some films largely have only 1-star ratings and 10-star ratings but nothing in between. That can’t be right, can it be?" he asks.

While the rating scene concerns him as an industry stakeholder, Yarlagadda is a long-time IMDb Pro subscriber. IMDb Pro is a premium feature available on the site, also offered as a separate app, which provides its members access to contact details of prominent industry members from around the world, provided they too have an IMDb account. It also shows a ranking of talent as per the popularity of their work. Accessible at an annual fee of $50-150 depending on your region, it is popular among professionals in the media and entertainment industry and has over 100,000 app downloads on Android.

Yarlagadda regularly uses IMDb Pro to find new talent to work with, and also to get access to representatives of international studios to obtain content licenses in some cases. However, you cannot rely on IMDb entirely for talent recruitment either, he says. Fake claims are easy to make for new talent or smaller roles.

Manufacturing clout

In August, Prashant Baid (@prstb), a software developer, wrote a Twitter thread and a Substack newsletter unravelling how people are gaming IMDb to manufacture fake clout by adding their credits to popular projects.

“I used to visit IMDb a lot to find all sorts of details about movies and their cast. Sometimes, it was a bit like Wikipedia-page-hopping, where you land on one IMDb page, then click on a link, then another link on another page, and suddenly discover a completely new cool movie to watch altogether. Now I take everything on that site with a grain of salt," Baid says.

Fake claims are hard to detect though, Yarlagadda points out. Take the example of Baahubali itself. “We must have worked with over 20 studios and there would have been at least 25 people from each studio working on Baahubali. We don’t know every junior artiste or single-day technician who worked with us on the films. I have neither the idea nor the intention to verify their claim should they add their name to the credits on the film’s IMDb page," he says.

His own experience puts him in a position to understand the struggle to check fake claims. “But IMDb can bring in an element of verification to their rating process," says Yarlagadda.

In fact, “verified ratings is the least of all the features you can expect from its parent company Amazon, which is hailed in the industry for introducing verified purchase-based reviews for its ecommerce business," says tech entrepreneur Mohanty, who is also the co-founder of a community of product managers. “They took a stand that they’ll even display a bad review as long as it is from a verified buyer," he adds.

Many in showbiz prefer Rotten Tomatoes, an American review aggregation site, as the platform shows ratings from “certified critics and verified audience members".

For the record, 95% of the movies on the platform are untouched by this manipulation, notes Pulkit Kochar, a digital creator who often relies on IMDb trivia and other sections on the site to create Bollywood-centric content for his social media accounts. “But the remaining 5% have ended up creating a distrust for the platform," he says.

IMDb has helped Kochar discover great movies to watch. He feels proud to see Indian movies [like Dangal, Pather Panchali, and Jai Bhim] appear in the global top 250 highest-rated films of all time. “It is sad that some people are misusing the system for their ulterior motives to ensure people don’t watch a film. However, I’ve noticed that IMDb has begun to have an active presence on social media in India of late, so I’m hoping they will look into this, too."

The traffic imperative

After some back and forth on email for over a week, an IMDb India representative called us to say the company will not be able to answer Mint’s queries for this article because this month is a busy period for the teams.

As per an article on its site, “IMDb says that they have mechanisms in place to apply an alternate method for calculating ratings when they detect unusual voting patterns," notes software developer Baid. “But since they do not disclose how they are doing this, one can’t say if it really works."

It brings up a question screenwriter Chohan asks during our conversation about the platform. “Does IMDb even want to change? Because this gaming of rating does bring more traffic to the site."

At the same time, Chohan believes that the issues with IMDb “are a symptom of our times and not an outcome of it". But if the platform continues to do nothing to treat these symptoms, eventually people may stop seeing it as the holy grail of movie database, perhaps taking the current traffic away from the site and onto Khanna’s rival platform, should he decide to act on his plans by then.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shephali Bhatt

"Shephali Bhatt writes human interest stories on the creator economy, internet culture, mental health, media and entertainment. Someone once told her, 'you always do a great job of a story you really care about'. So, she cares. When not writing, she draws venn diagrams of all her life's situations. "
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