It has been over a week, but the Hindi Film industry is still buzzing with the thundering box-office opening of Pathaan, the latest Yash Raj Films production, also marking the return of Shah Rukh Khan, that collected 318 crores in its opening week and is marching steadily into its second week as I write this. The last time a Hindi film did such huge numbers was War (2019), another Siddharth Anand directorial starring Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff, which released well over 3 years ago. So naturally, Pathaan’s success has come as a major relief for industry.
Shailesh Kapoor, founder and CEO of Ormax Media, admits to being surprised by the degree of Pathaan’s success, while stating that it was bound to happen. He also talks about others factors that possibly contributed to such a reception — one of them being how last year for Bollywood was particularly underwhelming. “Hindi Cinema suffered in 2022 because it didn’t have those quintessential big-ticket items. The few big films that released were pre-pandemic films just waiting for a suitable release date. There were several stretches lasting as long as 5-6 weeks which didn’t see a big release. This was never the case earlier. If anything, Pathaan only proves that people were desperate to come back to theater. They were just waiting for something that promised to be paisa vasool.”
While Kapoor is confident that the theater-going culture in India “cannot ever be substituted,” he also underlines the change in audience behavior and their expectations from theatrical visits in a post-pandemic scenario where OTT content reshaped the collective taste. He states how it was possible until a few years ago for the mid-range films and the event films to co-exist in the theatrical run. He elucidates further, “Smaller films, like emotional, human dramas which necessarily didn’t have a huge scale or big star cast, could survive on good word-of-mouth. Now, those films are struggling to get any opening, and this is equally true for southern industries. The bridge is only getting wider, with the two kinds of film being increasingly polarized. The process had started in 2018 — the pandemic only accelerated it.” Kapoor takes note of how the effects of these exclusive theatrical needs are finally kicking in, with more and more filmmakers looking to make either big-scale spectacles or create franchises and universes that have a steady and growing loyalty in the long run. “Any film that didn’t work last year either didn’t tick all these boxes, or just wasn’t found promising enough to deliver a worthy big-screen experience. Even Drishyam is kind of a franchise now.”
According to Kapoor, it’s these tentpole films that also drive in new subscribers for OTT platforms. He adds, “The smaller films (like Darlings and Gehraiyaan) may be watched by many, but they don't bring in subscriptions. These platforms need a unique property like IPL to bring new viewers, and mid-range films don’t have the power like an RRR or a Pathaan does.”
And yet, Kapoor looks at these changes only positively. He says, “We have to be realistic — these two different mediums, creating two different types of content.” He insists that audience is not losing out on good stories either. Just that they will find a home in long-format shows now, instead of movies. He adds, “There is enough demand for good content on OTT, which also offers great scope for exploring new genres that have been hitherto untapped. I see more and more producers contemplating venturing into producing shows more than films. For instance, Netflix’s Trial by Fire could have been a film as well, but it reaches its true potential when created as a 7-part series.”
Kapoor talks about the difference between testing a film meant for theatrical release as compared to an OTT release. “While the factors remain the same, what varies is their weightage in the final score. For instance, the element of ‘Swag,’ which denotes an aspirational quality, is much higher while assessing theatrical films whereas for an OTT film or show, we assign higher weightage to elements like ‘authenticity’ and ‘emotional heft.’ There are about 15–16 of these drivers that go into calculating the final appeal score of any content.”
Kapoor talks about the skepticism Ormax had met with in its initial days of making inroads into the film industry, recalling how most of the filmmakers didn’t see too much merit in testing a creative medium like cinema in this manner. He adds, “But the industry is also a small place, and everyone talks to each other. So slowly filmmakers who found our work effective told others about it, and that’s how Ormax grew to where it is today.” Kapoor also talks about why he decided to set up Ormax in the first place. He elaborates, “I come from a broadcasting background where I worked for 9 years, and I noticed how there was no specialized research firm for media. There were only general consultancy companies, which approached films and media with a very FMCG approach that didn’t seem right.”
After establishing a formidable impact in creating content for Hindi films and shows, Ormax is now paving its path in southern film industries as well. It’s a new beginning for the team all over again, Kapoor notes, since the filmmakers there aren’t used to such an approach towards making films, adding, “The key is to be patient, as always.”
Kapoor talks about the challenges of testing scripts, where it becomes difficult to gauge elements like pacing. And yet, he says, script-testing is far more actionable than film-testing, adding, “You can only make so many changes in a film whereas with a script, the maker can decide whether to go ahead with that story or not, to begin with.” Kapoor remembers a film like Andhadhun (2018) to be a rare exception which surpassed all box-office estimates almost by 30% and brought in newer audience that weren’t part of the regular theater-going audience.
Besides testing content and scripts, Ormax also tests trailers for most of the films these days where filmmakers come up with trailer options, hoping to get a better direction about their marketing strategy. Kapoor really stresses upon the need for a good trailer to create buzz and aim for a healthy opening at box-office. He adds, “A few years ago, a star would at least guarantee a decent opening. Now with films like Shamshera and Cirkus, that myth is shattered as well. So ultimately, it boils down to having a good trailer.” Kapoor insists to look at the positive side of these trends as he says, “It proves that the story is important inherently, which actually means a good time for content-driven projects. Technically, you can make a big event film, without necessarily spending over half your budget on stars alone.”
There was a lot of speculation about the fate of Laal Singh Chaddha’s box office being influenced by the boycott campaign that ran on social media against the film. Kapoor refuses to give it too much importance, adding, “When the trailer came out, it became clear that Laal Singh Chaddha wasn’t offering something appealing to the mainstream audience. Its appeal score was somewhere in the 40s.” To further make his point, Kapoor mentions how Brahmastra, another big film that faced the wrath of boycott campaign, managed to draw audience because it had a great trailer, which was received well from the start.
Kapoor talks about the other attempts by filmmakers to increase footfalls, like the ‘Cinema day’ initiative where the exhibitors reduced the ticket prices on certain days, and how these tactics cannot create sustainable demand. He adds, “Some producers spend enormous amount into in-your-face marketing. However, the audience catches onto that, and they are not drawn to products that do not create an organic buzz or fuel an inherent interest in the viewers to watch the film.”
Kapoor states that the 2023 calendar for Bollywood looks far more promising even though he is not sure of their success levels. And while Pathaan’s roaring success is definitely a positive sign, Kapoor notes that it will take a lot more to effectively revive the theater-going culture among the audience. He says, “The industry needs at least 5-6 of these films, and with more consistency.” Kapoor also emphasizes upon the need to build better cinema infrastructure in rural areas and smaller towns. “More massy and inclusive films, that work not just in cities but smaller towns as well, can fuel such a growth. Opening more cinemas is tricky too because those houses then end up running at 20 % capacity, where you need good content to fill those theaters. But Pathaan has proved that with right film, it is possible to achieve that.”