'Bollywood Oscars' team has done a bit of everything, including some big events

Schoolchildren perform during the closing ceremony for the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games, a Wizcraft-led project, in Delhi, India.  
Schoolchildren perform during the closing ceremony for the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games, a Wizcraft-led project, in Delhi, India. 
Published Mar. 8, 2014

TAMPA — Meet the team behind the "Bollywood Oscars," a show promising to bring spice, foreign tourists and some of the hottest (and priciest) tickets the Tampa Bay area has ever seen.

It's a company called Wizcraft International Entertainment, owned by Sabbas Joseph, Andre Timmins and Viraf Sarkari — three friends from Mumbai who started small and grew something big.

In the mid 1980s, Joseph was a young newspaper reporter in Mumbai writing about a dazzling new nightclub called Xanadu. He became friends with the club's two 20-something owners. After a couple of years, the three launched Wizcraft in the emerging field of event management.

Their first gigs? Tiny. Think magic shows, birthday parties, singing telegrams and dance competitions.

"We even did a party for a dog," said Joseph, 49, who has been in Tampa for three weeks working on plans for the International Indian Film Academy's awards weekend, scheduled for April 23 to 26.

Wizcraft's first big event was the All India Conga Music Contest, with eight or nine bands and a crowd in the thousands. In 1996, Joseph and his team dreamed up, pitched and pulled off a Mumbai concert with Michael Jackson. The next year Wizcraft scored big with a contract for the 50 Years of Indian Independence Celebrations in New Delhi.

Today, 26 years on, Wizcraft has nearly 400 employees, more than $100 million a year in revenues and a bulging portfolio: television production, product launches and corporate branding.

Plus events: concerts, opening and closing ceremonies for big sporting events. Wizcraft created IIFA with an awards ceremony Bollywood has embraced. More recently, it launched a similar awards gala for the Indian music industry.

Wizcraft has orchestrated corporate events for multinational companies like Google and teamed up with two other groups of companies to open an entertainment complex, Kingdom of Dreams, in India in 2010. Its head office is a commercial area of Mumbai comfortably close to several media and entertainment companies.

"It's a great catchment area," Joseph said in an interview Friday. "Everyone is next door, so you keep dropping into each other's offices for a cup of tea."

Wizcraft has offices in five countries, including one on Rocky Point in Tampa. This week, Wizcraft has 15 to 20 employees on the ground here. Next week, it'll be closer to 40, and by the end of April, 150 to 200.

Planning is maybe a week behind schedule, Joseph said, but tickets are selling well and the U.S. embassies in Mumbai and Delhi are helping secure the hundreds of travel visas for IIFA's teams of technicians, performers and others.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, whose staff is working with Wizcraft on logistics, is confident everything will come together.

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"They're very good at what they do," said Buckhorn, who went to Mumbai last month for an IIFA media blitz. "But it's a fluid process, and it's changed up to this point and will probably change a few times before we get to the drop-dead date."

This will be the 15th time that Wizcraft has put on the IIFA awards, and the first time ever in the United States. Joseph said India made 1,772 movies last year, and its second-biggest market is the United States. That's expected to make the Tampa awards show IIFA's biggest ever, with more than 30,000 visitors expected.

Still, Bollywood movies are a new thing to many American moviegoers, with differences of language, story, genre, even the prevalence of song and dance.

"America is still coming to terms with Bollywood," Joseph said. But as a live event, the IIFA awards are an effective method of cross-pollination between the U.S. and India, not only for movies, but also for commerce and culture.

"The impact of a live experience almost cannot be replaced," he said. "You can create it as a bespoke opportunity, and I think it can be very powerful."

The awards show at Raymond James Stadium will start with a piece showcasing the host city for a global television audience of nearly 800 million. No spoilers, Joseph said, though he promises "you'll see Tampa Bay come alive" through images, people and stories of the region, including Tampa's Gasparilla pirate festival.

"The magnitude of this is beyond what most of us were anticipating," Buckhorn said.

That's something bay area hoteliers are keeping in mind as they work with an event that's presenting them with a few new twists.

"One of the things we're learning is that this event doesn't book like most large events in the market we serve," said Bob Morrison, executive director of the Hillsborough County Hotel & Motel Association, whose members met with Joseph this week.

Consider the Super Bowl. Once the teams are set, there's an intense two weeks of reservations being made by fans who largely come from just two cities.

By comparison, marketing to potential Bollywood visitors is more challenging because they are coming from all over the world.

The awards show also takes place during a busy season for bay area hotels, though Morrison said the market has more than enough rooms. (Originally, the IIFA awards were scheduled for June, a slow time for hotels. Organizers said a high demand for tickets led them to move the show from the Tampa Bay Times Forum to Raymond James Stadium and to pick a weekend expected to have mild, dry weather.)

After initially offering a lot of four-night packages, bay area hotels are adjusting to this new market and have begun offering three-, two- and even single-night packages.

However fluid things are now, hotel managers see an "unprecedented opportunity" to introduce the bay area to a huge tourist market in Asia.

"That's maybe the biggest takeaway from this event," Morrison said. "It repositions Tampa as a destination in markets that we've never had access to before."