Focus Group Screenings: Whose Cut Is It Anyway?

Test screenings - that employ state of the art market research methods - are fast becoming a part of the commercial Hindi filmmaking process. Studios seem to want it. But directors, not so much
Focus Group Screenings: Whose Cut Is It Anyway?

In film critic Rajeev Masand's annual roundtable of the best Hindi film directors of 2018, nearly everyone had a Focus Group story. Anubhav Sinha, the director of Mulk, shared a startling anecdote: Kumud Mishra, who plays the judge, a pivotal character, was recast after feedback from the Focus Group audience suggested that the original actor playing the role didn't work for them. Sinha had to use "enormous amounts of special effects" to reshoot the portions, which were originally filmed with six cameras and eight actors. He said he believes it made the film significantly better. Amit Sharma's Badhaai Ho, which has an unusual theme and cast, tested well — which would have then ensured that it had a wider release than it would've got otherwise. While you were glad these films benefited from Focus Group feedback, you were thankful that films like Raazi and AndhaDhun didn't take them too seriously. Imagine AndhaDhun without that ending, or Raazi becoming a lesser hit. Both the films proved the test results wrong, and went on to do big business. While Sriram Raghavan had to fight the studio heads at Viacom18 over getting the Final Cut, Junglee Pictures, the studio helming Raazi, were confident about their product — Meghna Gulzar spoke of men dozing off during the screening for her film, which went on to earn double of what was predicted, making it one of the highest grossing Hindi films led by a female star.

Focus Group screenings are the movie equivalent of tests conducted for any FMCG product: a new toothpaste or a soap before they are launched. It isn't exactly a new concept; it's a practise that grew popular during studio-era Hollywood. Although it existed even earlier – silent cinema entertainer Harold Lloyd came up with the laugh-o-meter, a device to measure audience laughs.

Closer home, they have existed informally, in the form of the directors or the producer showing people they know – and whose opinions they trust – the rough cut. Or calling friends and family of cast and crew for trial shows, if they are looking for the layman's view. When I had interviewed Ram Gopal Verma on the occasion of 20 years of Satya, he had recalled showing the First Cut to fifteen people, all of who "hated the film, and especially Manoj Bajpayee". "One of them was my uncle. He said, 'If you can afford it, can you not release the film?'," he said about the test screening of his seminal gangster film. Aamir Khan has been doing it privately for his productions – he has his own approach, but more on that later.

"There is also a general openness which wasn't there four five years ago. 3-4 years ago we were testing 15 films a year, now we are testing 50 a year. Obviously more people are agreeing," says Shailesh Kapoor of Ormax Media, a media consulting firm, that conducts most of the Focus Groups for studios and producers. 

In the past few years, these have become more professional. They follow a methodology. The idea is essentially two things: To 'fix' any problems, if at all, in the story. And two, to determine the business potential of the film: How many screens will it release? Should it only release in big cities? How aggressively should it be marketed? The audience is demographically divided on the basis of gender, age group, theatre type, ticket price, movie taste. Preview theatres are booked in metros like Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, and in small towns they are held in banquet halls.

Ormax Media, a media consulting firm, conducts the most number of Focus Groups for studios. Shailesh Kapoor, its founder, says that Hindi film producers were apprehensive about it initially (around 2010) because they were afraid of the story or climax getting leaked. But the industry has warmed up to the idea in the past few years. "There is a general openness which wasn't there four-five years ago. We were testing fifteen films a year. Now we are testing fifty a year. Obviously more people are agreeing," says Kapoor.

But Focus Groups have also been contentious. It's tricky to find a direct correlation between Focus Group results of films, and their eventual box office performances. Because the information is commercially sensitive, studios avoid talking about it. Most directors don't like it – the great Sidney Lumet, in his book "Making Movies", wrote about about his frustrating, surreal experience in a Focus Group for his film. Shoojit Sircar finds the idea ridiculous. He did it once – by changing the style of a voice-over in Madras Cafe – and vowed to never do it again. "It's an insult to the director and writer who has spent two years working on a script," he tells me on the phone. Others are more moderate, they tread cautiously. For most part, it's a mix of hearsay, rumours, and anecdotes shared on request of anonymity.

Some studios, I'm told, have begun to add clauses of compulsory Focus Groups in directors' contracts (they may still make exceptions for certain directors). A director, off the record said, that he has heard filmmakers have started shooting "two-three endings" – because endings are soft targets, often seen as the easiest way to 'fix' a film. Some studios, I'm told, are more director friendly than others. Sometimes, it's a matter of the power equation: A director big enough to call the shots may have his or her way. There are horror stories about other studios. But no one's naming names.

Based on Focus Group feedback, director Anubhav Sinha recast the actor playing the judge in 'Mulk', and reshot the last forty minutes – a decision he doesn't regret.
Based on Focus Group feedback, director Anubhav Sinha recast the actor playing the judge in 'Mulk', and reshot the last forty minutes – a decision he doesn't regret.

Focus Groups can be useful, but the key is to interpret the feedback, and not take it verbatim. This is where the studio's attitude toward it comes in. "You need to understand the nuances of it," says Sneha Rajani, the head of Sony Pictures Networks Productions. "If you go strictly by what research tells you then let me assure you I wouldn't have made a Piku. It wasn't tested. But even on paper, people were surprised that it was green-lit in the first place…. You have to be very careful as to how you use the feedback that research throws at you," she says. Sony Pictures isn't too big on Focus Group screenings; they have done it for films such as Soorma (2018), and Poster Boys (2017).

I attend a Focus Group screening, thanks to Kapoor. It is a little bizarre, but otherwise rather dull. It's at the Famous Studios in Mahalaxmi. Rows of seats in the preview theatre are filled with young adult male audience on a weekday afternoon. Some of them are college students, many are young professionals. Unlike me, they have no idea which film they are going to watch. Everyone has deposited their phones with a man who collects them in a plastic bag. There is a moderator, who reminds me of an invigilator in an exam hall. He is flanked by a couple of assistants, who hand out clipboards, pens and questionnaires. The moderator instructs how to fill it. He warns about leaking any information about the film, especially on social media; he says there are past instances of studios suing focus group audience. I think he is just saying it to scare them.

There is a pre-screening questionnaire, which asks the audience to rate the teaser, poster and title of the film, along with other things. Ten people are singled out by the moderator, who calls them by the numbers we have all been given. They will take part in a more secretive, closed group discussion after the film. What they say might end up affecting the final film. Just before the lights go off for the movie to begin, a couple of studio people, presumably the Marketing Executive and the Associate Producer, sneak into the last row — one of them is in three-fourths and T shirt. They sneak back out few seconds before the interval, and they do it again just when the film is about to get over. All of this is to ensure an environment in which the test audience doesn't feel conscious by the presence of the makers.

Based on this feedback, the WOM rating (Word of Mouth) – "the most important parameter," as Kapoor puts it – will be arrived at. A 70 plus = Adored, 65-69 = Loved. In the lower range, 40-49 = Disliked, and anything below 40 would be deemed Rejected.

Later on, as the people participating in the Group Discussion are encouraged to be more frank about their views on the film, the executives sit in a separate room from where they can see the whole thing on a computer screen wearing headphones. The director may not always be present in the screenings, but the studio people are always there. I'll never know what bearing the focus group screening had on the film I saw, at least narratively, because I don't see myself watching that film again.

The post screening questionnaire contains things like Rate the film on a scale of Poor to Excellent; Rate First half – Second halfPacing; Will you watch this film in the theatre? and With whom will you watch this film in a theatre? You are asked to rate the film in these departments: For Family; Woman Power; Moments of Happiness and Fun (Translated in Hindi as 'Masti Ke Pal'); Grand Scale and Good-looking & handsome characters. Except maybe the last one – an unfair metric for certain films – the questions don't seem problematic.

Based on this feedback, the WOM rating (Word of Mouth) – "the most important parameter," as Kapoor puts it – will be arrived at. A 70 plus = 'Adored', 65-69 = 'Loved'. In the lower range, 40-49 = 'Disliked', and anything below 40 would be deemed as 'Rejected'. These are scores out of 100 that tells the studio how much the film was liked, and hence is likely to be recommended by those who will eventually watch it when it releases. Ormax has a database of films since 2010.

Sriram Raghavan, director of AndhaDhun, says that taking negative feedback from a Focus Group audience  "too seriously" may limit the business potential of a film.
Sriram Raghavan, director of AndhaDhun, says that taking negative feedback from a Focus Group audience  "too seriously" may limit the business potential of a film.

Among the recent films, AndhaDhun's test score was in the sixties, Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota scored in the forties, and Sonchiriya scored even lower. Vasan Bala, the director of Mard, says that these "cold statistics can throw everyone into panic." "But if you have a producer and studio wise enough to not be swayed by it, the response is still in the creative realm," he says. "The moment you take the numbers to heart, you are fucked. Then you lose faith." Mard didn't perform well at the box office, but Bala doesn't want to blame it on the limited number of screens it played in. "We'll have to leave that department to the studio, as it's very economic, very strategic. I was in complete creative control, and I took what I wanted from the Focus Group, tweaked the climax a bit, put in a couple of things," he says.

Niche films without stars such as Mard that score low on WOM get small releases, and worse, sometimes no release at all. This happens when, as Kapoor says, "the numbers suggest they cannot recover any marketing costs either." Kapoor clarifies that it's the domain of the studio, and the research firm doesn't take part in the decision-making. When a big film with a star scores low, the strategy is the exact opposite. They front-load the marketing to ensure that they earn as much as possible on the opening weekend. As was the case with Ra. One (2011), which tried to make the most of its Diwali release.

Taking the WOM score as gospel can limit the business potential of a film. Raghavan says he still gets told by people in the industry that AndhaDhun would have made more money had it released in more number of screens. "I don't have a problem with Focus Groups as such… But the corporate side sees the feedback like, 'Okay this is how the movie has tested, so maybe this is how much the movie is going to make. Hence we should open it like this, not spend too much on marketing.' So these kind of decisions, I think, are dicey," he says.

"I don't have a problem with Focus Groups as such… But the corporate side sees the feedback like, 'Okay this is how the movie has tested, so maybe this is how much the movie is going to make. Hence we should open it like this, not spend too much on marketing.' So these kind of decisions, I think, are dicey," says Raghavan.

It's not a great idea to take Focus Group feedback on face value also because the films are incomplete, which can make a huge difference. (Studios generally try to test five-six months before the release so that there is some time to work on the results). This means, they are often without background score, colour grading, and sometimes you might even see green screens.

Raghavan illustrates how this had a decisive impact on the Focus Group screenings of AndhaDhun, especially the ending. "Once the can is kicked, in the preview theatre I remember, they shut off the lights. Because that was all that was there. No titles, nothing. There was no music or anything at that time. But you see the same thing in the final film, and when the can is kicked, and the screen goes dark, you as a viewer get a moment to reflect: What did I just see? The music gives you a certain mood, tension. And this is a very vital time in the movie, you know. The abruptness…I was being given examples of successful test screenings, like Badhaai Ho, by the studio. I agree. But 'Badhai Ho' ka last shot may not be the most vital shot," he says.

Personally-handled Focus Groups, on the other hand, often produce satisfying results. Aamir Khan apparently interviews the audience himself. This kind of approach is completely against the classical rules of marketing research: You don't bias your sample group (Imagine Aamir Khan showing you his next film, and then asking you to bitch about it). It's the fine difference, Kapoor explains, between a Test screening and a Focus Group. Going by his successful productions, Khan seems to have cracked a way of doing it.

Tumbbad, an unusual, uncategorizable film, improved over a number of Focus Groups held periodically since 2013. The film's co-director Adesh Prasad drafted the questions himself; the audience ranged from college friends of the film's Production Supervisor's sister, to people responding to Facebook posts put up by the team. Prasad, who took charge of the film after it was shot, was looking for a way to change the film from "art house" to "mazedaar" (fun). "They are not critics. They will not be able to pin point. But they will be able to tell you what no film scholar will be able to tell you. Something as simple as Mazaa nahi aaya. Or Main picture mein ghusa hi nahi. Or things like, Pehle 15 minutes main bohut bore hua hoon," he says. Prasad says he chose not to hire a consulting firm because they "are expensive", and something that "only studios can afford".

And yet, increasingly Focus Groups will become integrated into the commercial film production, according to filmmaker Raj Nidimoru (of director duo Raj-DK). He says the idea of the "director being the all in all" is changing. The director isn't always the captain of the ship. In many cases, it is the producer, or the actor, who "puts a package together." The TV series culture of working with multiple writers, script consultants, and so on, promotes this style of film production – Amazon Prime, for example, does Focus Groups dutifully. "It's proper collaborative filmmaking, in a different sense, where it's not all coming from one source," says Nidimoru. He isn't the biggest fan of Focus Groups. ("If the audience says that a scene is slow, it's not just a flaw, it's a matter of perspective. I might say I did not want music in this entire section. I wanted people to squirm in their seats," he says). But he can see sense in it. "I think filmmakers in general have a problem with it. Studios in general want it. I think it's a necessary evil… It's part of the process these days. So it's better to understand why some people believe in it than to inherently protest against it," he says.

DISCLAIMER: The WOM ratings of the films published in the piece were provided by the directors

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