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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Gossip spells mega bucks-Bollywood addicts


By Pratibha Umashankar (Cover Story)
Juidin Bernarrd Khaleej Times Online


He commands a billion eyeballs in over 130 countries. He claims his celebrity news portal www.Hollywood.tv is currently valued at one billion US dollars. He now wants to take Dubai to the world and bring Hollywood to Dubai.

Meet Sheeraz Hasan who has built his business empire on our obsession with the rich and the famous and the infamous.

“PEOPLE WANT gossip. Fans crave for every scrap of information about stars. I merely feed the frenzy,” says Sheeraz Hasan, the suave and astute businessman. His list of contacts reads like who’s who of Hollywood. Founder and CEO of www.Hollywood.tv says he went to LA with nothing but his dreams and made it big in 18 months flat. Now he is about to launch dubai.tv and have a tie-up with a prominent television channel for a weekly show. The man with the Midas touch says, “How do we make money? Huge sponsorships. They’re already approaching us. They want a piece of the pie. We’ll splash them on our websites, on our TV show — it’s a money-spinner. What will drive the venture’s the ad revenue. When you drive along Shaikh Zayed Road, you see so many billboards. Dubai.tv will be like taking a virtual tour of Shaikh Zayed Road, but the whole world will be driving through it and looking at the ads.”

But let’s begin at the beginning. “Once upon a time….” That’s how Sheeraz’s story reads — like a fairy tale. But the proverbial once upon a time is not all that long ago. It was in 2002 that Sheeraz, tired of working at the family restaurant in London, packed his bags and left for LA. He was 28. He dreamt big. At 16, he had turned the limping family eatery into a thriving business by giving it a 24-hour Hollywood-themed avatar and named it Tinseltown Café.

Glitterati fascinated him. “I thought these stars are normal people like me. But because they’re in movies and TV, the whole world follows their every move. They wield enormous influence,” says Sheeraz.

He flew across the Pond and camped at his uncle’s house in LA.

“Day after day, I watched him glued to the telly watching Bollywood movies,” he says. “Just a flip of the channel away was Hollywood, the huge movie industry, but he was hooked on to Bollywood. Then it struck me that Bollywood was big if millions like him watched it. But I wondered why there was no Hollywood gossip or news on those channels. Here was a huge movie industry that did not talk about its twin on the other side of the world. I decided I was going to be the guy to bring them together.

“I rang up B4U office in New York and told them I had a killer idea. I got invited to their office. I was so excited, I was screaming about my new idea to the heads of B4U and Eros. I asked for a slot on TV. They asked for a pilot. For me then, a pilot was someone who flew a plane. But I convinced them that telecasting Hollywood gossip would grab more eyeballs. I appointed myself as Hollywood’s ambassador to Bollywood. I told them I’d provide them the content. Two hours later, I had a contract guaranteeing distribution and my own show called Tinseltown to be viewed by half a billion people from the Subcontinent.

“So here I was, a London-based guy of Pakistani origin wanting to do shows about Hollywood for Bollywood. I had a fabulous contract and six weeks to produce the show. Did I know anyone in Hollywood? No. I had zero knowledge of producing a TV show. I thought, Richard Branson doesn’t know how to fly a plane, but he owns Virgin Atlantic.

“Soon they had started airing ads about my exciting new show with me bringing celebrity news hot from Hollywood, and I didn’t even know where to begin.

“I called up my brother in London and told him about the video I had to shoot. He said, ‘Pagal, do you even have a camera?’ It struck me that I didn’t. I rushed to a camera store. There I bumped into an independent filmmaker. I told him my story and hired him on the spot as my cameraman and editor. I said I’d feed him chicken korma and rice as I had no money to pay. I made and sold cookies to keep myself going.

“As the deadline loomed, I got frenzied calls from B4U asking me for promos. But I had nothing. All I had was a thousand takes of me on Hollywood Boulevard saying in different poses, ‘Hi, I’m Sheeraz from Hollywood bringing you the biggest stars from Hollywood to Bollywood.’ I panicked as time ticked.”

Sheeraz then did what anyone who is as desperate as he was does. He started praying.

“I’d go to the Hollywood sign every day and pray in the shadow cast by it,” he says. “A man who had been watching me one day came up to me and asked what I’d been doing. “I told him that I was doing Namaz and then narrated my story. It was Rowland Perkins, founder of Creative Artists’ Agency, the biggest talent agency in the world. He asked me to come to his office the next day. That was when my kismet opened!”

Stars, both celestial and the Hollywood kind began to smile on Sheeraz. Thanks to Perkins’ connections and Sheeraz’s never-say-die attitude, he had shaken hands with the crème-de-la crème of Hollywood and he had his first episode ready. He had met the deadline! The programme became a huge success. Viewers had lapped it all up and were asking for more. Sheeraz Hasan had arrived!

Within weeks, he was covering film premieres, red carpet events and doing celebrity interviews. He produced and hosted over 200 episodes of his multiple-award winning programme Tinseltown TV.

Within 18 months of coming to Hollywood, Sheeraz had catapulted to fame. And on July 4, 2005, America’s Independence Day, Sheeraz launched www.Hollywood.tv.

Today he is one of the most powerful men in the media, offering paparazzi video footage and entertainment news stories to one million viewers a day through the website.

“We are today the number one celebrity portal. We also supply our content on a daily basis to CNN, Fox, ABC, NBC, CBS, AP, Reuters, Sky News, Entertainment Tonight and The Insider.

“To me, the Net and TV are one entity. The words TV and Hollywood as brands are recognised around the planet. I view domain names as real estate. So I have the hottest real estate online today," says Sheeraz.

“We give our viewers practically everything related to Hollywood. When a star moves, they are on Hollywood.tv. It’s 24x7 celebrity news. Our relationship with the huge networks, drives traffic back to the website. Hollywood.tv is worth a billion dollars.”

Thanks to the site’s in-your-face attitude and Sheeraz’s contacts, he has built a cultural bridge between the two biggest film industries in the world — Hollywood, representing 3.6 billion worldwide fans and Bollywood representing 3.8 billion worldwide fans.

“People go to websites they trust. So when you break a story you've got to be sure you are right. Your whole market value depends on it," says Sheeraz.

In 2006, Sheeraz launched his autobiography, Sheeraz the Muslim American Dream that depicted the trajectory of a remarkable success story. At 32, Sheeraz says he couldn’t ask for more. “I’ve found my soulmate in my wife Zareena. My seven-month-old daughter Yamuna means the world to me!”

Why scandal sells

Why the unhealthy interest in other people’s lives?

When you’re somebody’s fan, you are watching their movies, and get obsessed with them and want to know more about their lifestyle. That’s what’s the driving force behind all the advertising and the multi-billion dollar paparazzi celebrity industry. People like to see celebrities doing things — normal and abnormal. Both make news. It’s escapism. You forget about your own ordinary lives when you read about stars. People love to watch stars going up or down because you are the one who put them on the pedestal. So when Britney Spears trips up, people want to know all about it. What’s made Hollywood.tv so popular is because it’s not just about a celebrity walking on the red carpet looking good. We capture them in their most awkward moments — with bad hair, or collecting kids from school…. All of a sudden, people are hooked on to such news. It’s very addictive.

Why the addiction?

When people watch a movie of Shah Rukh Khan, for three hours, they are emotionally involved with the character. You expect a normal man to be a hero all the time. That doesn’t happen. So the addiction to all that goes on in their lives.

So portals like yours feed the frenzy.

I do it because the media is cutting me a cheque for a million dollars for a photograph! Why do they spend a million dollars for just one picture of Britney Spears? It’s because the consumer’s buying it. The day consumers stop buying it is the day the magazines and tabloids are not going to cut me a cheque. I’m only supplying what’s in demand. The person who goes and pays $2 for a magazine is the ultimate culprit. The second people who are responsible for feeding the frenzy are those who distribute it. I’m the last one to bear the onus — I supply the content for such magazines and channels.

Is nothing sacred? Is there no private place of your own?

There is, if you choose not to live in Los Angeles. You can work in LA, but must live away from it. Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones live in Barbados, away from the limelight.

But they are the same people who sell their wedding pictures to celebrity magazines.

But why not? Because somebody’s going to take their pictures anyway. So if not I, somebody else’ll sell the pictures to the magazines and TV.

All this is based on the premise that no one is interested in a happy marriage, but everyone’s interested in a divorce.

Oh, yes, we all love breakups, we love people who lose weight, who gain weight — that’s show business. Welcome to Hollywood!

So portals like yours are glorified peeping Toms. And everyone wants a peek at the images you capture.

Yes, but we’re in business because of the ordinary person who goes out and spends money to buy a gossip magazine. They are the people who are driving the entire Hollywood economy that generates trillions of dollars. It’s the average person on the streets who has created the global entertainment business.

A round of applause

After only 18 months of arriving in the US, Fortune Magazine, devoted a four-page spread to Sheeraz. His story was featured alongside Google founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and Bill Gates.

He was given the Hall of Fame award at the 2004 Indian Telly Awards for bringing Hollywood and Bollywood.

He was named “Hollywood Ambassador to the Middle East” at the 2004 Arabian Music awards in Dubai.

One Night Foundation named him their “Humanitarian Communicator of the Year” for his work in promoting their efforts to fight AIDS in India.

He has been appointed the Global Ambassador for Youth for Human Rights International and a special representative for Friends of the United Nations. He educates children about human rights.

At the 2005 Bollywood Awards, Sheeraz was appointed Hollywood Ambassador to Bollywood for his outstanding contribution to bridging the two largest film industries in the world. He was also given their prestigious “American Dream” award.

In response to the South-East Asia tsunami and earthquake in Pakistan, he hosted the first live telethons in the US to raise money for victims of the disasters.

Sheeraz also owns www.sports.tv, www.history.tv, www.la.tv, www.medicine.tv.

Why Dubai?

“I see the greatness the city has to offer,” says Sheeraz Hasan when asked about www.dubai.tv. “So much is happening here and I want America to know about it. I want to take Dubai to America — to the world. And I want to bring America to Dubai through the portal. Dubai inspires everyone with a vision beyond boundaries and setting global standards. And I’d like to be a part of this huge dream of Dubai. I want Americans to fall in love with Dubai. It was thanks to the sponsorship of Dr Sulaiman Al Fahim, CEO of Hydra Properties, that I came to Dubai. So many events are happening in Dubai, but I didn’t know about it till I came here. You see, Americans are not really coming to Dubai. The American market’s really not biting. It’s probably because there’s a scare about the region. The most media-savvy people in the world based in America with the biggest global networks don’t hear about what’s happening here. So I’ve created a portal that covers events here and take it to a global audience. We want to tell the average American how beautiful and safe Dubai is.

“When I’d speak to Hollywood stars about Bollywood, they’d ask me, ‘Does India have TV?’ And today, the same people go to Mukesh Ambani for funding. That shows how powerful India is and Bollywood is. And I, who am not even an Indian, have contributed to this change in perception. And I want to do the same thing for Dubai.”

Janeen presents …

JANEEN MANSOUR is all set to be the face of Dubai.tv. The American of Lebanese-Palestinian parentage is ideally suited to be the cultural ambassador between the two regions.

At 18, when she worked for Neiman Marcus, the specialty store, she had an opportunity to interact with major fashion designers. She hosted many celebrity fashion shows and fundraisers. A major in PR at UCLA, Janeen joined Tinseltown TV and later Hollywood.tv, marking the beginning of a successful professional partnership with Sheeraz Hasan. As a field reporter and producer covering Hollywood red carpet events, premiers and doing celebrity interviews, she is now ready to take on Dubai.

“The fastest way to reach the rest of the world today is through the Internet,” she says. “We are planning to cover all the events happening in Dubai — be it celebrity and entertainment, real estate-based news or business news in general. We’ll have it on Dubai.tv within 30 minutes. Not just Dubai, but the UAE and the region will be promoted around the world. We’ll cover anything newsworthy.

“We’ll also have a half an hour weekly show of all that’s happened in the region. It’ll be telecast from December, which I’ll be hosting. We’ll announce our media associates as soon as it’s a done deal.”

She says it’s not going to be a paparazzi website and show. “This is going to be different. We’ll not be hiding behind trees to capture celebrities. We are planning one-on-one interviews with CEOs and business personalities here.

“We’ll also have the top 10 picks of the week — the best hotels, restaurants, new products, fashion shows, opening of malls…. Because of our strong presence in Hollywood, we’ll bring the latest news from there too — the Oscars, the Grammies….. And the website will be up to the minute.”

Dubai.tv and the show will endorse books, a la Oprah Winfrey Show. “We’ll be promoting new writers,” says Janeen. “Also, if you have any new products, new music or ideas, come to us. If I’m convinced it’s good, I’ll endorse it.

“The website has already had a soft launch and is up and running. But we’re planning a huge official launch with parties for celebrities in LA and Dubai.”

Janeen has set up shop here. “Dubai’s going to be my home,” she says with a huge smile. The relationship we have with stars and the reputation we have built will help us replicate our success here.”

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