Mumbai: Katrina Kaif: 57%. Kareena Kapoor: 32%. Priyanka Chopra: 15%. Deepika Padukone: 12%. Vidya Balan: 6%. Sonakshi Sinha: 5%.

In a beautifully preserved bungalow in Mumbai’s Khar neighbourhood, stardom is demystified and boiled down to percentages every month. At the office of Ormax Media, 3,200 respondents rate their favourite stars on various parameters every four weeks. The data is collated into a table and sent out to subscribers under a package called Stars India Loves. The celebrity status tracker helps measure anecdotal evidence about a star’s popularity against hard data. It reassures them that Salman Khan rules the roost, that Akshay Kumar is worth betting on, and that Shah Rukh Khan still matters.

The August results show that 50% of the sample size voted for Salman Khan, followed by Akshay Kumar at 29% and Shah Rukh Khan at 22%. Aamir Khan is at 18%. The only actor under 30 to feature in the top 10 is Ranbir Kapoor, at 12%.

Film testers: (left to right) Gautam Jain, Keerat Grewal and Shailesh Kapoor, the founding members of Ormax Media, at their office in Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/mint

While the sample size isn’t large enough to rock any star’s boat, the number crunching is useful enough in an industry where financial dealing can often be opaque. Even though there is greater transparency now than in the past, reliable information on production budgets, advertising spending and earnings can be elusive. Even more abstract is the appeal of a star or the impact of a promotional roll-out on the crucial opening weekend. Ormax Media, which is part of the Ormax group, is attempting to do for the film business what market research companies do for advertising campaigns: quantify taste.

While Ormax has been around for 27 years, Ormax Media began operations in 2008. “Television was the starting point for the business, and it is still 60% of our business, but our film work is beginning to pick up," says 37-year-old Kapoor, who has a Master’s in business administration from the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta. Stars India Loves is a byproduct of Cinematix, which tracks the efficacy of promotional and marketing campaigns across five cities, including Mumbai, Delhi and Ahmedabad. Ormax Media also conducts focus groups for productions on the cusp of a film’s release. The company has tested close to 20 films in the last few years, some up to four-five months in advance.

Pre-release feedback is a sensitive topic in an industry that prides itself on its informal ways and instinctive understanding of audience taste, and Kapoor is reluctant to share his list of clients.

Rudrarup Datta, marketing and content head of Viacom18 Motion Pictures, says his company has been a client for about a year now. “Ormax tracks all our campaigns. We extensively used their help to fine-tune the positioning and pitch for Gangs of Wasseypur." The data from Cinematix helps the studio “identify the strong and weak territories in terms of consumer appeal for an actor and helps us fine-tune our marketing plans", Datta adds.

The pre-release tests are that aspect of a production process when a film ceases to be a film and morphs into a product that gets scrutinized from all angles and tweaked and repackaged, if necessary, before being put on the assembly line. Even the most commercial-minded film-makers are averse to being told by a focus group that the climax isn’t working, or that the hero is all wrong for the story. Since it’s often too late to reshoot at this stage, the movie is evaluated for clarity and pace. Does the story make sense? Is it too long? Do viewers feel for the characters?

The heavy hitters in the business have traditionally taken box-office receipts as the ultimate form of endorsement, but the scenario has changed in recent years because of higher budgets, younger and more media-savvy audiences, and increasing dependence on opening weekend takings. Like in Hollywood, a Hindi film can sink or swim depending on how it fares in the first few days of its release, which increases the pressure to quickly recover investment.

The race to the finishing line is actually a long-distance marathon that starts when a film gets into production. “We track films from the day we announce them. For instance, we have been tracking (forthcoming releases) Barfi! and Heroine for a year," says Shikha Kapur, executive director, marketing (studios) at Disney UTV. “We do try and plan a marketing promotion strategy before the film goes on the floor, and this helps all of us to think it through till the promos break closer to the movie release," adds Rafiq Gangjee, vice-president, marketing and communications, Yash Raj Films (YRF). “Nothing is sacrosanct, and promo content often needs to be tweaked and changed as necessary as the campaign progresses."

Studios such as Disney UTV and YRF don’t use Ormax Media, but conduct in-house research. “It’s more of an internal non-structured assessment amongst ruthlessly candid colleagues," Gangjee says.

At UTV, test screenings helped change the opening of Vishal Bhardwaj’s crime thriller Kaminey, released in 2009. The story of twins who get embroiled in a diamond heist originally opened at the source of the precious stone in Angola (the sequence is available on the movie’s DVD). “When we showed the film to groups, there was a comprehension problem about a portion in the beginning," Kapur says. “We removed the bit."

Due diligence for the films sounds seriously oxymoronish, but the bottom-line-conscious studios are loath to let a production pass unsupervised from conception to completion. Some producers even read out scripts to focus groups in an attempt to nip a potentially unsaleable film in the bud. The battle between creativity and commerce can often get ugly, but Kapoor is careful about not ruffling feathers. “I start a lot of presentations by saying, we are only the messenger. We share facts and make recommendations in such a way that they’re not cast in stone. People shouldn’t see you as somebody who says, you have made a stupid film and we know better."