Should the fact that the rich get richer ever have to be proven in a court of law, the Oscar gift bags could be Exhibit A.
Since 1989, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has handed out its high-end party favors the "official Academy Awards gift bag" to presenters and performers (but not the award candidates) in appreciation for their unpaid work in the Oscar ceremony. We're not talking coffee mugs and pens, here. The value of each bag's contents topped $100,000 last year. Among the piffle:
-$540 worth of Manni olive oil;
-a $700 Krups kitchen set;
-a three-night stay for two at St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort and Spa in Dana Point worth $5,900
-a $1,500 dinner party at Morton's, The Steakhouse.
At times it seems as if there is as much anticipation and buzz focused on the contents of the bags as there is on the best picture nominees. That's due in part to the mystery involved: the Academy never comments on the contents of the gift bags and the companies that provide the freebies are prohibited from discussing their inclusion until the Monday preceding the ceremonies.
Sequoia Productions has been in charge of the lavish Oscar gala for 17 years, and three years ago took over the job of filling, and guarding, the gift bags. The Academy had done it before. The firm does similar duty for the Emmys and other Hollywood kudofests as well, but the Oscar goodie bag is in its own league.
"It seems to have taken on something of a life of its own," said Gary Levitt, Sequoia's vice president. "There is a lot of prestige attached to being in the gift basket."
Two years ago, one unnamed donor broke the Academy's embargo rule. Its product was quickly yanked from the basket, providing a cautionary tale for other companies that might try to cash in early on the public relations coup.
"The documentation on the publicity process is very, very clear the participants realize that (the bag) is going to a select group of people and that's the value," Levitt said. "The Academy is so protective of their image and the reputation of the Oscars, and clearly it's worked for them. It protects the institution and its value."
The Oscar bags go to the roughly 125 presenters and performers. But the other stars hardly go wanting. That's because the gift bag tradition has spread to other awards ceremonies, including ones sponsored by the Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild of America and the Golden Globes. Even the Sundance Film Festival handed out bags this year.
The Academy does not charge donors a fee for their contributions. But for the non-Academy gift bags, some companies pay as much as $6,000 for the honor of gifting the stars.
Also, company reps will pony up as much as $20,000 to take part in special sessions in which stars peruse and select freebies in person.
Getting into the basket and thus, into the spotlight is extremely competitive, with requests submitted to Sequoia about six months in advance of the awards show.
Levitt said the company starts getting calls about the next year's giveaways the week after the Oscars, but he tells the would-be donors to hold off until October.
After weeding through the hundreds of submissions, Levitt and his team gather a group of products and services and run them past officials at the Academy, which has ultimate approval over how many and which items are included.
"The selection process varies from year to year, and there is no rule," Levitt said. "Nothing is done without the Academy's involvement."
Beverly Hills skin care specialist Sonya Dakar included gift certificates for spa services in the 2002 bags and now counts Gwyneth Paltrow as a customer, thanks to the gift certificate she received.
"When we first got in, we were a much smaller company, and we couldn't have even afforded to give product away," said Mimi Dakar, Sonya's daughter and the company's vice president of marketing. "It was an incredible opportunity for us. It really generated a lot of high-profile business."
Some of the recipients may be in for an unwanted surprise come April. The goodies count as income to the recipient, taxable at the value of the goods and services included.
Maybe next year's bag will include a gift certificate for a tax accountant.
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