Show organizers say it's a 'thank-you' for stars' time

By now, you’d have to be new to the rites of Hollywood, or at least someone whose entertainment aspirations are geared no higher than a place at the Slamdunk Film Festival, to be surprised at the seeming incongruity of this fundamental showbiz rule: the bigger the name, the more freebies they receive.

That’s never more apparent than this time of year. With Awards season in high swing, the presenters, nominees and other public figures associated with awards shows — particularly the televised ones — are routinely given gift bags, baskets, or even access to gift rooms where they receive products and services that are worth well upward of $10,000.

It’s not like members of Hollywood’s A-list (or, for that matter, B+ list) can’t afford to pay for electronics, spa treatments, jewelry and the other goodies routinely given to them. But it’s also not like the people at Maurice Lacroix watches, TiVo, Dry Creek Vineyards, Nokia, Johnston & Murphy shoes or the Sharper Image are willing to give away their goods to just anyone.

Like it or not, the opportunity to be associated with celebrities is why so many high-end merchants participate in award show gift collections.

“Basically, celebrities sell,” says Karen Wood, a former talent coordinator who several years ago took her skill at pampering celebrities and turned it into Backstage Creations.

The company takes the gift basket idea one step further, creating backstage Talent Retreats, where stars can pick and choose from the offerings of a number of high-end vendors, all in a relaxed, clubby atmosphere.

“Having a product’s name next to celebrities elevates that product in the public eye. People bestow lots of discernment on celebs; if they like it, it’s a cool item.”

“If I can get a shot of someone holding one of our bags in InStyle or People, that’s incredible promotion for us,” says Ross Kiefer, director of product placement for Wilsons Leather, who was one of the merchants in the Talent Retreat at the recent American Music Awards.

Just a few feet away from Kiefer was jeweler Scott Kay, As he’ll tell you, he is in the platinum jewelry world what Tom Hanks is in Hollywood, the leading star, and he’s especially fond of the Talent Retreat concept. For him, it’s as much the appeal of getting to know and mix with celebrities as seeing them wear his jewelry.

Maurice Lacroix, an exclusive watchmaker from Switzerland, had reps in the rooms because it’s looking for celebrity endorsers,.

Kim Stare Wallace, of Dry Creek Vineyards in California’s Sonoma Valley, put bottles of her vineyard’s Zinfandel Reserve in the SAG gift bags, and was pouring that and other Dry Creek wines at the March 10 awards ceremony. She says it’s important for her to get her wines known among this influential crowd. And she seemed to enjoy the interaction with the SAG Awards attendees.

But as popular as Wood’s Talent Retreats have become (they were also at the SAG Awards and People’s Choice awards, among others), gift baskets and bags remain the standard.

According to Terry August, who with her husband, Wally, owns and runs FanciFull, a company that specializes in packing gift baskets, Oscar and Emmy remain the most lavish gift baskets, although Terry August noted that SAG had an especially full offering for its presenters, nominees and winners this year.

FanciFull was brought in by the Academy for the first time this year. AMPAS had done the collecting and packing itself in years past, but as the sheer bulk of the offerings has expanded, it needed August’s packing expertise.

Although the Academy, unlike almost all the other awards shows, won’t comment on the contents of its gift baskets, August and other participants indicate that among the goods and services Oscar presenters will receive this year are such products as a gift certificate for a stay at the Esperanza resort in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; a stainless steel Ebel watch; a Macintosh iPod portable music player; Patron Tequila; a certificate for a Temperpedic bed; Sonya Dakar spa and facial services; and such specialty items as a leather backgammon game set and a silk travel blanket, all (or at least most of it) stuffed into collectable Longaberger baskets that on their own retail for up to $400 apiece.

All of this inevitably raises the question of the propriety of giving such luxurious items to people who could well afford it anyway. It’s a question that misses the point of the baskets, the gift-givers say.

“Essentially, this is a thank-you from the shows’ producers and from us for their time and their talent,” Wood says. “When you think about what these celebrities’ time is worth, this is really inexpensive. And the producers love it because it’s added value for their show, and they don’t have to give it too much thought.”

“Because they’re rich they don’t deserve a present?” Terry August asks.

Wally August adds, “Has it ever been any different? People in the spotlight get attention and they get gifts, if for no other reason but having to submit to the celebrity culture.”

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