By the time Les Adams arrived in Eastland, Texas, in the 1960s, he was about 50 years late for the town’s oil boom. But Adams came searching for another kind of treasure. He had received a tip from his former boss at a bowling alley, a politician named Preston Smith, that a printing company in Eastland was changing up its business. For years it had been a major source of promotional materials for the movie industry, but it was moving on to a new market in restaurant menus. The company, Smith said, had some leftover pressbooks—brochures created by film distributors to market new flicks—that might interest Adams. Bearing a handwritten note from Smith, Adams found the owner, Victor Cornelius, at his office on Main Street. “I still don’t know what Preston told Victor,” Adams told me. “But I do know I ended up getting the pressbooks. He had them upstairs in a blocked-off room—shelves and shelves. It started in 1930, in alphabetical order.” Adams borrowed a pick-up truck and made five trips, ferrying three decades of film history to his own collection of memorabilia back in Lubbock, about a four-hour drive away. “I was buried in paper,” he recalled.
Victor Cornelius’ company became one of the largest menu-printing outfits in the country. Preston Smith became the 40th governor of Texas. But Les Adams would become a leader in something arguably even grander and farther-reaching.
For the next three decades, Adams spent his spare time expanding his collection and his expertise on film, particularly cinema from the 1930s to the 1960s. Then in 1999 Adams learned about a place on the still-new World Wide Web that could hold all that knowledge. His first impression of the Internet Movie Database wasn’t favorable—“an ugly orchard filled with low-hanging fruit”—but he also saw that it had potential to be “the only site that was a one-stop place for movie researchers and historians.” He decided to pitch in on the crowdsourced project.
Adams, now 88, has since written almost 7,000 plot summaries for films listed on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). In total, he’s contributed more than 890,000 pieces of information about film and TV, a chunk of which came straight from the files he hauled from Eastland. “If data was weighable,” he told me, “the IMDb owes a small ton of thank you kindly, sirs to Preston Smith and Victor Cornelius. I was only the messenger.”
Yet Adams’ extensive additions to the database make him only the 41st-most-prolific contributor, as of early 2023. Someone else has written over 35,000 plot summaries; another is credited—somewhat controversially—with a staggering total of 22 million items. Contributions can range from correcting an errant punctuation mark to writing a biography of a new actor.
Although there are over 83 million registered users of IMDb in the world, only a small fraction of those ever add information to it. That group includes actors adding their own credits; production companies filing content for their productions; and most of all, individual volunteers contributing wherever they see fit. The top 300 contributors—from Brazil, India, Germany, Norway, the Philippines, Spain, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, and the US, among others—are memorialized annually in the site’s Hall of Fame for the extraordinary amounts of time and energy they spend helping build the preeminent reference source for film and TV. Beyond that, they don’t get public recognition; they are largely pseudonymous and don’t divulge much about themselves on the site. They don’t get paid, either. (Adams says he once received an IMDb tie pin.) And yet their contributions have an incalculable reach across the web—viewed by millions on IMDb, repurposed on Wikipedia and TikTok, copied into movie event listings, cited in scholarly articles.