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Movie History – Looking Back at the First Fifteen Years of Filmsite.org (a.k.a. Greatestfilms.org)

Filmsite was launched in May of 1996, when I first registered filmsite.org as a domain and set out to create a small non-profit site dedicated to great American film. It was a bygone time, fifteen years ago, when almost every conceivable domain name was still readily available for a small registration fee. I had been an amateur film buff for many decades when I decided to create an educational, inspiring resource that capitalized on my movie knowledge. The site was launched as an offshoot of my personal hobby of watching and collecting classic films on Blockbuster-rented VHS tapes, and on high-quality laser discs from retailer Tower Records — now both obsolete home video formats.

The Tech Environment When Filmsite Launched in 1996

At the time, I lived in downtown Palo Alto and worked in the heart of Silicon Valley. I was engaged full-time as a technology educator at San Jose, California’s Tech Museum, running public programs, conducting computer classes, and teaching myself (and others) how to program in HTML. The site served as a way to practice webpage creation while reviewing the greatest English-language films of all time. Very few personally-created websites existed, and I decided to avoid the easy route that many Web authors took — posting a free site in a GeoCities neighborhood. I used Netscape as my Web browser (since Microsoft’s IE didn’t exist until late 1996), my e-mail client was Hotmail, and my preferred search engines were AltaVista, excite, and HotBot. I frequently visited Yahoo to see where Filmsite was being cataloged along with a burgeoning number of other Web sites. To put the era in its proper context, Netflix, Wikipedia, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Firefox, and even Google didn’t exist, and blogs hadn’t appeared. Amazon, eBay, and IMDb were still in their early development stages, and only 34 million American households had a computer.

The Challenges I Faced

I faced many challenges in building, maintaining, and hosting the Web site in the mid-nineties. To compose Web pages, I first used a simple program called BBEdit, which was basically a source-code view with a helpful toolbar for formatting. None of the advanced Web-page-making HTML programs had been released yet, so I paid a monthly fee of about $30 to local ISP Best Communications, which was accessed using a noisy dial-up modem. I soon noticed overwhelming traffic to the site: after a few minutes at the start of each hour, Filmsite would be blocked from view because it had exceeded its proportional hourly bandwidth. That was the first sign that the site was becoming hugely popular, and that I would have to make more expensive choices to keep it active. At first, there were no advertisements, banners, or affiliate arrangements, but after a few years they became necessary to offset the expense of additional bandwidth. A secondary domain name was also registered: Greatestfilms.org.

Major Themes in the Early Days

Some of Filmsite’s earliest home pages were first captured by the Internet Archive in December, 1996, showing a very simple design. (Check it out here.) The site started out as a compendium of some of the greatest moments and scenes from classic films, but it soon became clear that each of the scenes needed to be placed in context. That’s when the idea to select the 100 greatest films and review them occurred. Even within its first six months, Filmsite.org was prominently displaying its familiar content themes: 100 Selected Greatest Films, Greatest Film Genres, Greatest Film Quotes, Greatest Film Moments & Scenes, and more. Filmsite proudly ranked the 100 greatest films a few years before the American Film Institute (AFI) created its similar series, in mid-1998.

Recognition and Accolades

One phenomenon of the early Web was the ubiquitous practice of recognizing new or innovative sites with a “button.” At first, I kept track of the awards, prominently displaying them on the home page, until they became overwhelming. (See an archive of Filmsite’s early awards here and its early reviews here.) My original intent with the site had been fulfilled, and nowadays, as then, my highest priority remains to provide original content about film.

It was a great thrill when TV film critic Roger Ebert selected Filmsite as one of the top twenty movie sites for 1997. In the January 1998 issue of Yahoo! Internet Life (yes, a print magazine!), Ebert made reference to some of Filmsite’s reviews in his column. He also mentioned them in a book on the great movies. He selected Filmsite as one of his favorite sites (which he called a “labor of love”) in the June 1999 issue of Yahoo’s magazine. (See all of Ebert’s references here.) When I had the opportunity to hear Ebert speak in San Francisco, in April of 2002, I eagerly attended. After the event ended, we had an exhilarating one-on-one conversation for about twenty minutes.

Filmsite’s Impact

Dedication, hard work, long hours at the computer (and movie screen), and attention to detail have made the site one of the top-level Web destinations for film. I am exceedingly grateful for the many helpful and productive visitor comments. I am proud that Filmsite is widely considered one of the best sites for film information, serving as an “introduction to cinema literacy,” according to Wikipedia. Through the years, it has been visited by scores of students, film-studies classes, casual enthusiasts, Web surfers, and beginners to film as well as film buffs.

AMC’s Acquisition of Filmsite, in 2008

While Filmsite was expanding in the late nineties, AMC was airing uncut classic films and hosting film retrospectives. When the channel’s Digital Media division approached Filmsite in early 2008 as a possible acquisition, it was part of a strategy to expand its online presence. (More on that here.) It was a close and fitting partnership, which began in September of 2008, one that has allowed me to continue to manage, write, update, and edit Filmsite as Senior Editor and Film Historian, and has provided greater visibility for the site.

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