Mumbai: At a crucial point in Vishal Bhardwaj’s film Ishqiya, the 15-year-old, gun-toting character Nandu narrates Krishna’s back story to the other protagonists. This persuades the characters played by Arshad Warsi and Naseeruddin Shah to rescue the object of their affection, played by Vidya Balan.

Fine-tuning: A still from 3 Idiots. Test audience response helps film-makers sharpen marketing strategy, too.

“They couldn’t really grasp what Nandu was trying to say," says Mansi Maroo, co-producer of Ishqiya, explaining that the narrative was simplified after feedback from focus groups in five cities.

It’s been a long-standing tradition in Bollywood to invite friends, family and confidants to preview a script or film. That casual process is giving way to a more organized system with film-makers and producers leaning on market research firms to give them a better idea of what audiences want. UTV Motion Pictures Plc has used market research for all its films, including Kaminey, Dev D, Fashion and Rang De Basanti, with a two-member team overseeing the effort.

“It’s definitely something we like to do. It adds valid inputs to the overall decision-making process, right from the rough cut to the final product," says Siddharth Roy Kapoor, chief executive officer, UTV Motion Pictures. “But we’re not anal about it. We would never let a focus group dictate a shot breakdown."

Typically, focus group audiences are classified not just in terms of age and gender, but also by their disposition to particular genres. Test screenings take place in small preview theatres where audio and video recorders are used to capture audience reactions. After the screening, audiences are asked to fill out forms—was the pacing too slow, which characters were the most likeable, was any of the language offensive, among other things. The data is analysed into a confidential summary, which the film-maker is free to interpret and incorporate.

A spokesperson for the producer of 3 Idiots recalled a scene in the movie where the character played by Aamir Khan has to rush his friend’s paralytic father to hospital. The initial cut of the film went from a shot of them in the house to one in the hospital, making too much of a jump, according to test audiences. “Repeatedly, the feedback was—how did they get to hospital?" Director Rajkumar Hirani then inserted scenes of Khan, Kareena Kapoor and the father riding to the hospital on a red scooter.

In the case of last year’s biggest hit Ghajini, which features at least two intensely violent scenes, a number of women were disturbed by the sound of metal shattering bone, said a spokesperson for Aamir Khan Productions, the producer. The final version of the scene in which Asin’s character is killed featured the sound of just one blow, not four, he said. Khan has also conducted focus groups for his next film, Peepli Live.

Test audience response can also help film-makers sharpen marketing strategy. In the case of Ishqiya, men enjoyed the film more than women. “Which is when we decided to up our ad spends on news channels substantially from 5% to 20%," says Maroo of Shemaroo Entertainment. The company had conducted market research at film-maker Bhardwaj’s insistence.

“He found it extremely beneficial for Kaminey," she said, adding that the audience feedback also helped them pick key elements for their film communication and hooks for public relations-led stories.

No surprise, then, that a number of research companies such as Synovate India, Hansa Research and Ormax Media Pvt. Ltd are working with filmmakers and studios to help fine-tune their products.

“Till last year, we would get maybe two or three films. Now, that number has gone up to seven or eight," says Vispy Doctor, director, Ormax Media, a Mumbai-based firm that specializes in consumer understanding of the entertainment industry.

According to industry estimates, an extensive research exercise, across several cities, would cost up to Rs20 lakh, which is negligible when it comes to cost of production, says Kapoor of UTV Motion Pictures.

Some film-makers say market research is invaluable in helping them gauge an audience’s response. Others say it threatens their integrity. But nearly everyone agrees that movie testing is here to stay. “It is a valuable tool, mostly because you get a sense of what threads of the story are working or not. So, I would definitely be more comfortable if the director was open to using market research," says Arun Rangachari, chairman, DAR Capital Group, which is in the process of launching a Rs250 crore film fund this year, and is currently producing Mahesh Manjrekar’s soon-to-be-released film, City of Gold. “The bad part is sometimes in trying to please everyone, you can make things impersonal. It can take the fangs right off a film." That’s why many film-makers tend to be wary, believing that conflicting views from a test audience would dilute the vision that inspired the movie in the first place. Another reason for scepticism is that data often becomes fodder for pointless debate.

“It shouldn’t be used as an argumentative tool, that’s when things start going downhill," says Sheetal V. Talwar, chairman and managing director, Vistaar Religare Film Fund, which used focus groups for its recent film Rann featuring Amitabh Bachchan.

At another level, focus groups could mean film plots leaking out.

“You don’t want someone giving away the plot on Twitter," says Rensil D’Silva, director of the film Kurbaan, who prefers conducting informal focus groups with friends or peers.

Still, producers are willing to allocate part of a film’s budget to research. Balaji Motion Pictures Ltd (BMPL), which will soon release LSD—Love Sex aur Dhoka, spent approximately Rs8 lakh on focus groups, using them to assess everything from concept to marketing material.

The company is now working on research models, which will help them identify audience segments, developing tastes and attitudes of the future. “It takes six to eight months to make a film at the quickest," says Vikram Malhotra, chief operating officer, BMPL. “So, it’s important to have a finger on the pulse, on what audiences will want to see in the future."