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One company knew Shamshera and Laal Singh would fail. It’s why Bollywood swears by Ormax now

With leading filmmakers like Karan Johar and Zoya Akhtar swearing by its relevance, data consulting firm Ormax has become as significant as the editing process of a film.

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In a year where it is almost fashionable to diss Bollywood with boycotts and box office failures, data is proving to be the new clincher. From Karan Johar to Zoya Akhtar to Reema Kagti, Bollywood is turning to Ormax for rankings and ratings about stars and movies.

Amazon Prime Video, Disney-Star, T-Series, Yash Raj Films, Dharma Productions, Viacom18 — you name it, and chances are that Shailesh Kapoor, CEO of media insights consulting firm Ormax Media, has worked with them.

“All successful films we have had, very ironically, have been Ormax-researched films,” Karan Johar, director and Dharma head honcho, told Film Companion’s Anupama Chopra during a roundtable with Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti of Tiger Baby Films nodding in agreement.

If 2021 saw Bollywood languishing in comparison to its counterparts, 2022 has jolted the Hindi film industry into a state of hysteria.

“You beat Alia Bhatt, dude. How does that feel,” asked Johar on his latest season of Koffee with Karan, to Samantha Ruth Prabhu, who topped the Ormax list of ‘most popular female stars (all India)’. Akshay Kumar, who was sitting beside her, happens to be the only Bollywood actor, on the list for male stars. While Prabhu laughed off by saying that she was “paying someone” at Ormax, one cannot deny the impact of having featured on ‘the lists’, and the rising significance of the media consulting firm in the entertainment industry.

Kapoor and Vispy Doctor launched the media consulting firm in 2008. Kapoor has nearly a decade-long experience working in the television industry, while Doctor has been one of the most respected consumer insights experts in India since the 1980s. The company has significantly scaled up its operations in the last few years. Over 85 brands across industries and platforms use their services to make critical creative and business decisions at various stages of a film, series, or media brand.

“We cater to three main categories — television, OTT, and theatrical. While the approach differs to some extent for each, we primarily we do three kinds of work in them, i.e., testing content & campaigns, tracking content & trends, and consulting on content and marketing related projects,” Kapoor told ThePrint.

With leading filmmakers like Johar and Akhtar swearing by Ormax’s relevance, the consulting firm has become as significant as the editing process of a film. A trusted tracker of box office forecast, showbiz trends, and media consumption habits, Ormax seems to be the proverbial ‘it’ celebrity making rounds in pop culture—from roundtable discussions to Koffee with Karan.

A screengrab from an episode of Koffee with Karan (season 7) wherein Samantha Ruth Prabhu was questioned while referring to Ormax survey | Disney+ Hotstar
A screengrab from an episode of Koffee with Karan (season 7) wherein Samantha Ruth Prabhu was questioned while referring to Ormax survey | Disney+ Hotstar

Also read: Scriptwriting is the hot new career. Engineers, doctors rush to Netflix, Amazon, Hotstar

What makes Ormax tick

Bollywood isn’t really known for research-backed decisions. It has run for a long time on big bucks and Siddhi Vinayak temple or Ajmer Sharif dargah prayers for success. But Ormax is changing how filmmakers and distributors are picking movies – by testing them out. These are commissioned by various production houses, studios, TV channels, who wish to test their shows, films, or even scripts.

“Come to think of it, it is quite thrilling to realise that the changes we suggest or the predictions we make are imbibed by some prestigious names in the media and entertainment industry,” says Shreya Ramakrishnan, who is a senior analyst leading a team working on testing and content development at Ormax Media.

Ramakrishnan joined Ormax a little over three years ago, hoping to be a part of the entertainment industry in some form or fashion. After hustling through an MBA from Ahmedabad’s Mudra Institute of Communications (MICA) and dabbling with a digital content start-up, Ormax turned out to be the perfect blend of fascinating and challenging work.

Back in 2018, Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk was one of the best-reviews films of the year. The courtroom sequence in the film, especially, garnered unanimous applause from the viewers. But it wouldn’t have been possible without testing the film. “When the film was tested by Ormax Media with audiences a few months before its release, there was no Kumud Mishra in it. Another actor played the judge. His performance, especially his talking style, did not match the mood of the film. The test audience found him (unintentionally) funny,” says Kapoor. Sinha took the feedback into consideration and re-shot the judge’s portions with Mishra, integrating him into the multi-camera scene, which elevated the final product significantly. “It is a great exercise as long as the director is still in control of everything,” Sinha told Rajeev Masand in 2018 while speaking about how the testing process helped him during Mulk’s release.

A scene from the 2018 film Mulk featuring Kumud Mishra playing the role of a judge | Zee5
A scene from the 2018 film Mulk featuring Kumud Mishra playing the role of a judge | Zee5

Sinha isn’t the only one. While there are filmmakers like Shoojit Sircar and Nandita Das who are “absolutely against” the focus groups, many others like Meghna Gulzar, Amit Sharma and Amar Kaushik swear by the testing process of films.

“If a producer wants to test a film in five cities, we would invite people from our panel in those cities for the screenings. The profile of the audience, such as gender and age, is customised to the objectives of the project,” says Kapoor.

After the viewing, the panelists have to fill in detailed questionnaire that helps the company draw insights for its reports. What if they watched Brahmastra before it was released? They are contract-bound not to divulge this information elsewhere, adds Kapoor.

The questionnaire and preview screening aren’t a package deal. Depending on the client’s needs, some surveys or questionnaires are conducted online. It could be an objective or subjective question. For instance, “Of these, which films did you watch in theatres?” or “Why did you like Laal Singh Chaddha? Please describe your reason in detail.”

Ramakrishnan’s average day at work begins at 10 am and often goes on till 7:30 or 8 pm, depending on the nature and number of projects. Each day brings a set of new challenges but no dullness. “Sometimes it could be speaking to consumers about an upcoming film or web series. On some days, it could be mining insights from audience feedback and on other days writing reports for partners,” she says, sharing how her inherent interest in learning about diverse cultures helps her assess different cinematic projects. Ramakrishnan also works on different insight reports about varying topics. Her latest report, co-authored by her colleague Abinash Gupta, traced the ‘return of The Angry Young Man’ in cinema and OTT, with characters like Rocky, Pushpa, Kabir Singh, and Harshad Mehta.

Among other things, Ormax Media has also collaborated with Film Companion and Amazon Prime Video for a report titled O Womaniya!, which reveals glaring statistics on gender disparity in the Indian entertainment industry.

Also read: Pushpa to Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2—Covid altered Indians’ entertainment buds, masala movies are back

From trailers to theatres

Situated in Andheri West, Ormax Media is headquartered in Azad Nagar. The office has the vibe of a new-age Silicon Valley start-up equipped with occasional activities like a yoga camp and an indoor game room for recreational activities. “We have shifted a lot of fieldwork to virtual, however, some testing assignments can involve travel, not a lot as such,” she says.

A group picture of the Ormax Media team with their families. With 35 employees, the media consulting firm is headquartered in Mumbai | By special arrangement
A group picture of the Ormax Media team with their families. With 35 employees, the media consulting firm is headquartered in Mumbai | By special arrangement

Testing, which accounts for 40 per cent of the work, according to Kapoor, requires the team members to travel to different locations for preview screenings of films or shows across India.

Another aspect of Ormax’s primary work is tracking. “When a new trailer comes out, we begin tracking the film or the show. After assessing audience engagement and their reactions, through our online and telephonic research, we forecast what a film could open at, i.e., its first-day box office,” says Kapoor. “We also regularly keep a track of who are the most popular actors, songs, etc. across languages,” he adds.

The approach differs for a song release, web series, reality show, or TV show. For OTT, more digital surveys are conducted than telephonic ones. The assessment style is swapped for a TV show, with telephonic surveys conducted from Ormax’s office in Surat, Gujarat.

Laal Singh Chaddha, a remake of the 1994 American film Forrest Gump featuring Aamir Khan in the titular role, did not score big at the box office. With boycott demands trending on social media way before its release, the film also failed to impress audiences. Most theatrical shows ran vacant, leading to cancellations across India. However, Kapoor says that the data shows even if the film had not faced the boycott slurs, it would still not have fared well. “The reactions and data curated after the trailer release indicated the fate of the film.”

He predicted the same outcome for Ranbir Kapoor starrer Shamshera, which became a box office dud with its measly collection of Rs 47.75 crore.

It isn’t just the trailer. Scripts are also tested via this new-found holy grail of Bollywood. “I have changed movie scripts and plot points. Once you come prepared, the Friday result will not bother you,” says Johar.

But among recent Hindi flops, Ayan Mukherjee’s Brahmastra’s stars were destined to shine. “The trailer was whole-heartedly welcomed by the audience, and our tracking results showed that the film would open to a solid audience response,” said Kapoor.

The first instalment of the homegrown superhero trilogy witnessed a record-breaking opening weekend of Rs 121 crore in India. Alia Bhatt, who plays a central character beside her now-husband Ranbir Kapoor, also ranks on top among the most popular female Hindi stars in Ormax’s survey. She is next only to Tollywood superstar Samantha Ruth Prabhu on the pan-India list.

Also read: Gangs of Wasseypur ended plastic NRI dramas. Gritty small towns have ruled Bollywood since

Market research — an antidote to Bollywood’s misfortune?

Except for Gangubai Kathiawadi, Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, and Kashmir Files, no Bollywood film has managed to get the cash registers flowing this year. More recently, Brahmastra has found its feet in the middle of this storm of duds. But the common perception is that South Indian films have the luck and content in their favour and are largely undisturbed by the volatile state of their northern counterparts.

“We are just looking at one-two films as an example and sample size for analysis. RRR was a pre-sold property because of Rajamouli. Apart from the mammoth films, the fate of films has been the same everywhere. Chiranjeevi’s Acharya was a big flop too,” says Baradwaj Rangan, a film critic. More recently, Dharma Productions’ Liger, headlined by Tollywood superstar Vijay Deverakonda, failed to transform into the pan-India success it was touted to be.

While trade analyst Taran Adarsh says that “no one in the industry has any clue what would click,” Rangan blames pre-pandemic, outdated filmmaking as the primary reason for back-to-back flops. There is only so much market research can do. Test screenings could be viable, but beyond that, it is “very difficult” to predict anything, says Rangan. “If they [market research] were the ultimate litmus test, then no film would ever flop,” he adds.

There was a time when leisurely-paced movies used to do well, but the pandemic has rewired people to think differently. They now enjoy smaller bits of content that can be accessed at the click of a button. As a result, viewers are over deliberately slow-paced films and shows. “I don’t think people are in the mood for that kind of ‘entertainment value’ anymore,” says Rangan, while quoting Laal Singh Chaddha as an example.

Buying a ticket in India defines stardom, elastic profit and is a testament to star power. Many mid-budget, high-concept films are opting for a digital release as opposed to testing their fate on the big screen. Take Akshay Kumar’s Cuttputli, for example, reportedly sold to Disney+ Hotstar for a massive Rs 125 crore. Despite drawing mixed reviews from critics, the film became an instant OTT hit with over five crore views on the streaming platform. More recently, Vicky Kaushal’s Govinda Naam Mera, with Kiara Advani and Bhumi Pednekar, has also shifted gears for an OTT release, reportedly sold for Rs 62 crore to Disney+ Hotstar.

“We are not in the Bachchan era anymore where pretty much anything with the star would have a humongous opening. There are zillions of affordable means of entertainment now,” says Rangan.

However, he refuses to discard the Khan era, calling it “premature” to write them off. According to an Ormax survey, Salman Khan’s Tiger 3, Shah Rukh Khan’s Pathaan (with Deepika Padukone and John Abraham) and Jawan (with Nayanthara and Vijay Sethupathi) are among the top 5 most-awaited Hindi films. Rangan urges the audience to wait for films being conceived and created now. Only then will we see the post-pandemic style of filmmaking. “If Amitabh Bachchan could find a second life playing varied characters, so can the Khans,” he says.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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