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Actors should be in control of our own data: The risk posed to actors through misleading, false, or harmful IMDb credits.

A case for the reform of IMDb spoken in front of the East of Scotland branch of Equity on the 26th of February 2024.

12 years ago, in 2012, when I was a young actor, before I had gone to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and before I had any film or TV credits to my name (having done exclusively theatre up until that point, and most of it amateur)  I went to an audition.

It was for a low budget film that wasn’t paying the cast. I wasn’t terribly worried about that: I wanted to get experience in front of a camera and learn how things worked on a film set.

I got the role – I was to play a small part who had a grand total of two lines and about forty seconds of screen time.

I got to the set and the experience I had will be a familiar one for many actors starting out: It wasn’t a set at all, just a few guys with a second hand camera and a high opinion of themselves. I learned nothing at all that day, because what I was on wasn’t really a film at all, but a passion project.

It was a rough day, but I chalked it up to experience. I hadn’t been paid but all it had cost me was a day of my life, train fare, and a little bit of my dignity. The film, when it came out, was objectively awful – but that’s fine. That’s how we learn. And almost no one saw it.

Fast forward to 9 years ago, 2015, and I landed a part in a short film. I had graduated from the Conservatoire and worked hard to make a professional name for myself. The short film was well written, and when I arrived on set had a full complement of crew and reassuringly expensive looking cameras. It was an utterly different experience to my 2012 one: there were contracts, we were given the appropriate number of breaks, transport, lunch, and a warm place to go when we weren’t filming. And, of course, it was paid. When the short film came out, I was proud of it – though small and independent, it was a good short film.

To my delight I was put forward for a BAFTA new talent award. It was a wonderful moment.

But then BAFTA contacted the producer of the film. They told him I can’t possibly be considered “new talent” because I had played the lead role in a feature film three years before. They said they knew that was the case because the role was listed on my IMDb page.

I had no idea I even had an IMDb page.

My 40 seconds of unpaid screen time in an amateur film that never screened anywhere was listed as a “lead role” in a “feature film”. Because of this I was ineligible for a new talent award.

My BAFTA nomination was withdrawn.

I was devastated.

Given I’d lost the opportunity of winning a BAFTA thanks to this misinformation, I contacted IMDb to have the misleading credit removed. They said I’d have better luck if I paid for a pro-account.

I signed up for a pro-account, and went through their removal process. After a long wait I was told that they would not be removing the credit because the film was real, and the information was in the public domain and was in the public interest.

This experience will also be a familiar one for many actors starting out.

I did another project. This one paid, but far below Equity rates. I did it because at the time I needed money and the paltry amount they offered daily was better than nothing. I had rent to pay and acting is my job, so that was how I had to pay it.

This project, ultimately, was also listed by the filmmaker on IMDb. He listed it as a “TV series.” It was never screened anywhere other than on his own YouTube channel. I never would have believed that the tiny daily rate I was paid would buy that filmmaker the right to be connected to me in a professional capacity for the rest of my life. To be clear: what he paid should never have bought that right.

Over the years more debris has gathered on my IMDb page; A film I played the lead in but that was never released, a movie that literally never existed in any form but that someone I went to school with made an IMDb page for because they thought it would be funny… there are so many ridiculous credits up there that the roles I legitimately am known for are lost. And IMDb won’t remove them. They ask for proof. Proof that films don’t exist. Proof that I wasn’t paid, or paid properly. Proof of things that can’t be proven.

Whilst researching this I have learned some things;

  • Many actors have IMDb pages and don’t even realise it.
  • Those who do realise it often have a credit or information on the page they wish wasn’t there.
  • Many have tried to have credits removed.
  • I have yet to meet a single actor who has successfully had a credit removed.

This is harmful.

Because I was right to try to gain experience in front of a camera. I was right to try to make money when I couldn’t afford rent. I was right to try to learn in a safe environment with other people who I thought were also learning and honing their craft. And despite all of that I realise now that I shouldn’t have done any of it, because now these projects will forever be on a site I have no control over. How can any young actor be expected to learn the ropes when every misstep they make will be recorded for ever?

What about our right to be forgotten?

In any other environment it is the right of an individual to contact a company that holds data about them and require those data be deleted. It is, after all, our data. It’s not an absolute right; there are some kinds of data that you can’t ask to be removed: some criminal records for example. But to argue not to delete those data, the data holder needs to be able to prove that continuing to hold them is in the public interest.

I cannot imagine how my 40 second appearance in a film that reached an audience of easily fewer than a thousand people could be considered to be data that is in the public interest.

Further vexingly; IMDb argues that the information they hold is in the public domain – even when the information is incorrect – despite the fact that the only public domain it is available in is IMDb itself. And if you do pay for a pro-account to correct what little of your own data you can without it having to be approved, it reverts the moment you stop paying for the account. IMDb actively rolls the information back, despite knowing it is incorrect, in order to force you to keep paying.

Consider the harm this inerasable public data might have on:

  • Actors who have or are in the process of transitioning but who can’t remove credits deadnaming them or depicting them in a body that it is triggering for them to see.
  • Actors who were coerced or convinced into filming nude or suggestive scenes that they now regret and which will hound them for the rest of their careers thanks to IMDb.
  • Actors who are the victims of stalkers to whom IMDb is offering a wealth of information outwith the data subject’s control.

And there are other sinister implications:

As actors we are often in the public eye. As a liberal, left leaning person my views in support of trans rights, women’s rights, equality of pay, and all manner of other issues have on occasion found me on the wrong side of Twitter. When this happens I receive death threats and attempts are made to hack my email, among other things. I’m loathe to even write this as I don’t want to give these people ideas, but imagine the power these trolls would have if they realised they could list a credit on my IMDb page claiming I was, for example, in an ultra far-right movie. It wouldn’t matter that the movie didn’t exist, I would be left trying to prove to IMDb it was false and all the while I’d be suffering reputational damage. The general public consider IMDb a reliable source. If it’s on there, many people take it to be irrefutable. I, perhaps, would eventually get the movie removed, but the damage would be done even though the movie didn’t exist.

But what if the movie DID exist?

To deep fake someone’s voice requires only a minute of clear audio. You can find that online for almost every working actor.

Deep faking someone’s appearance can be done with as little as two minutes of the right footage, again this wouldn’t be difficult to find for most screen actors.

We’re moving into a world where people can put a likeness of any one of us into a film we’d never condone and then list it on IMDb. And how difficult would it be to prove that the deep fake wasn’t you to a website that is notoriously difficult to have credits or information removed from? There is currently no law preventing anyone from making a film with a deep fake of another person without their consent. It is completely legal, because technology is moving faster than legislation can. We need to be able to protect ourselves from this.

IMDb list the following criteria when you try to post a film on their site, and only one of these criteria need to be met:

  • Released in cinemas.
  • Shown on TV or streamed on the web.
  • Released on video or the web or prints have been made available to the public.
  • Listed in the catalog of an established video retailer; (i.e. Amazon.com).
  • Accepted and shown at film festivals.
  • Made by a (now) famous artist or person of public interest.
  • Made famous for some reason and is widely talked about/referenced in media or the ‘film community’ or is now of general historic interest for some reason.

I feel as though there are certain criteria in there that are so outdated as to be laughable. Anyone can now pay to appear on Amazon’s catalogue, and indeed many “zero budget” films who don’t pay their cast somehow manage to find the money to pay to have their film listed on Amazon, even if only briefly. Given IMDb is owned by Amazon this is a clear conflict of interests.  Putting this aside, the term “streamed on the web” is so vague and nebulous as to make all the rest of the criteria pointless. Everything is steamed on the web in our modern world. Any one of us could take a video with our phone at any time and live stream it on any social media of our choosing. This, according to these criteria, would qualify it for an IMDb credit. These stipulations are not fit for purpose.

So what do I suggest?

  • The duty of proof should lie with the person who uploaded the information. If I say I didn’t appear in a movie, or that a movie doesn’t exist, it ought to be down to the uploader to prove otherwise.
  • Films uploaded to the database ought to uploaded by someone able to prove that everyone working on them was paid at least Equity base rates. This is a professional website and thus should only list films where actors were professionally paid.
  • Films uploaded to IMDb ought to have been commercially aired in some way: be that a film festival, cinema, TV, or bought by a streaming service. Paying to appear on a streaming service should not make a film eligible to be listed.
  • Separate contracts should be required informing actors they will be listed on IMDb. It should never happen without consent.
  • Films that can’t prove they made a certain base level of income or reached a certain base level of audience should not be considered to be in the public interest.
  • Finally – and I think most actionably and crucially – being tagged in a film in IMDb should be like being tagged in a photograph on Facebook. Actors should receive a notification of someone’s desire to list them in a project for us to accept or refuse. If we refuse the credit shouldn’t appear on our IMDb though it may still appear, without a hyperlink, on the page of the film itself.

We ought to be in control of our own data.

We ought to be in control of our personal information.

We ought to have a say in how we are presented online.

These statements shouldn’t be controversial.

I am so proud of Equity recently. Equity has TEETH these days. To see my union calling out Spotlight was incredible. To see my union calling out Arts Council England over trying to silence political speech was amazing.

It is my belief that the combined voices of actors that have been impacted by the issue, with our union standing behind us, can make a real change. To that end I would be grateful to anyone willing to share this message, add their voice to it, and amplify it. I would also be grateful to Equity should they choose to champion it.

IMDb is owned by Amazon, and that’s a Goliath if ever there was one; The biggest company in the world by some measures. But Equity has come out fighting this year. Amazon might be big, Equity may be smaller…

but though she is but little she is fierce.

Kenny Boyle
Actor, playwright, and author.