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Revving Up for the Bollywood Oscars in Tampa Bay

Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham is an unlikely advocate for the International Indian Film Academy Awards.

He said he’s not a cinema fan and knew little of the awards nicknamed "IIFA" and the "Bollywood Oscars."

"There was an opportunity to bring IIFA to Tampa and I had no  idea what it was," Higginbotham said. "They sat in this very office and said it was the equivalent of the Academy Awards and they said,  as with the other countries that held it, the countries write a check for $15 million to bring in the event, and I said, 'that’s not going to happen here.'"

What did happen is that Higginbotham helped pull together a private, local group and a business plan to raise money and pursue hosting the event. He said Hillsborough County and the city of Tampa are contributing in-kind marketing and security worth about $1 million.

"The return and the opportunity that we will see is magnificent," Higginbotham said. "There will be 800 million people who tune in to this.  And compare that to the Super Bowl where there’s just over 100 million, so, it’s remarkable what’s going to happen."

Higginbotham offered some anecdotal proof of the reach of Bollywood films.

"I was in an airport in Newark three weeks ago. I was stopped three different times by Indians, and they appeared to be businessmen, and another was a lady who worked at the airport, and the lady I remember said, 'you're Bollywood,'" Higginbotham said.

There’s no doubt the IIFA promotional machine is revving up interest in the 2014 awards in Tampa. It has 1.3 million "likes" on its Facebook page – and the IIFA website is posting daily videos featuring Bollywood stars.

"IIFA  has a promotional video showing a couple of Bollywood stars in various venues in Tampa. They're out in a boat on the bay, they're in a restaurant in Ybor, and I've heard from a lot of people that fans of Bollywood like to go where the stars have been," said Margaret Cashill, who reports for the Tampa Bay Business Journal on tourism and has looked at the business impact behind of the IIFA Awards. "So seeing the stars in these Tampa Bay attractions might boost visitation to them in the future."

Cashill said initial connections were via email with the event company Wizcraft that produces  the Bollywood extravaganza.

"Over the months they have established a base in Tampa, a base of employees that right now should be close to 300 people they tell me who are on the ground here in Tampa to prepare for the event," she said.

Cashill said some hotel owners not close to the downtown action have been disappointed by the lack of business. That is anecdotal because they’ve reportedly met the predicted hotel stays.

The four-day event promised 10,000 hotel stays, a $30 million regional impact and 800 million global viewers watching the awards ceremony, although Higginbotham said it is a mistake to think of the Bollywood spotlight as just a one time event.

"Our largest trading partner at the port is India," he said. "We’re always talking about expanding into tech, improving medical research and science. If you look around, many of those scientists and researchers have immigrated here from India, so those opportunities are there and they’re going to go well beyond this weekend."

He said about 100 CEOs from India are expected to participate in two days of business panels at the Tampa Bay Convention Center.

Alexis Muellner, editor of the Tampa Bay Business Journal, will moderate one of those panels. Muellner agrees that IIFA shouldn’t be viewed with short-term goals.

"I think in the end, hopefully there’s no incidents, everybody has a good time and it’s a successful event and it leads to a wider discussion about Tampa Bay being a big event town that can handle these things logistically, has the right resources, has the chops to think about developing this business and making also business connections," Muellner said.

A look back to Toronto – which hosted the IIFA awards four years ago – finds the event left its mark even on that cosmopolitan city, according to Deana Sumanac, the national arts reporter with the Canadian Broadcast Corporation.

"The eyes of the film industry will be on the Tampa Bay region because they will want to see how well the region can handle a fest of this size as well," Sumanac said.

She warned to expect traffic jams. And if you're scheduled to see a Bollywood star, expect to wait, because many are notoriously hours late, delayed by fans seeking autographs. 

Bobbie O’Brien has been a Reporter/Producer at WUSF since 1991. She reports on general news topics in Florida and the Tampa Bay region.
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