H’wood swag lag

Corporate scrooges hurt loot outlay

‘Tis the season when offices around Hollywood are normally awash in Mrs. Beasley’s Baskets and $100 bottles of wine. But, as many prepare to take off on their Christmas vacations, movie execs say all they’ve got so far in their swag stocking is a lump of coal.

“I used to see messengers coming into our office every five minutes with stuff,” said a studio marketing exec, whose past holiday hauls include fancy champagne, Nordstrom’s gift certificates and Burberry and Ralph Lauren goodies. This year? A few cards announcing gifts to charity.

“It’s a different kind of year,” the exec said. “It’s a hard thing to put my finger on. There’s just a sense of cutting back and not being as big and as extravagant.”

It’s not just studio execs. Production company brass and agents all say they’ve received far fewer gifts this year (however, they’ve said so only anonymously, since complaining about your gifts looks greedy, even in Hollywood.)

It’s tough to quantify the swag slowdown, but the courier services that cart the holiday junk around town say the traffic is definitely lighter.

“The studios themselves are on track, but the smaller production companies are down maybe 20%,” said Chase Michaels, the chief financial officer of KQ and Scots Way Courier, which handles the gift runs for Sony, Universal and MGM, among others.

Echoing the sentiments of several other courier services, Michaels said, “Nobody seems to be in the Christmas spirit this year.”

But, as anyone who’s unwrapped a big six-pack of socks understands, quantity does not always equal quality.

“Last year one of the studios — not our studio — gave iPods,” said a producer. “This year they sent a book. It was a very expensive book, but it’s still just a book.”

In the past, gift-giving has been an art of excess in Hollywood. At Christmas three years ago, Jim Carrey handed out brand new Porsches to his assistants, agents and managers. (Carrey, coming off the huge success of “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” had good reason to be in the giving spirit.)

“Years ago, people would stick their hands out and say, ‘That’s not enough. I want more,’ ” said a studio distrib head.

One (probably apocryphal) story from the once-lucrative gift trade between distribs and exhibs has it that a theater company built a pool at the home of a studio exec for Christmas. When they had business disagreements later that year, the exhib screamed, “You can keep the water, but send the swimming pool back!”

In a year when Mike Ovitz’s expense account has been publicly dissected, handing out such top-that gifts seems, well, gauche.

“I don’t think people look for it as much,” noted a top studio exec. “What’s really changed is the lavish stuff has really stopped. People are much more fiscally responsible.”

Others note that corporate pressures at the studios (in just the last year, NBC has purchased Universal, Sony married MGM, DreamWorks took its toon unit public, Disney had a shareholder revolt, and Time Warner settled a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation) have inspired execs to keep a low profile when it comes to their gift-giving. What MGM exec wants to be known as the guy who handed out 50 iPods?

“People are bitter,” said a studio production exec. “It hasn’t been a fun year.”

Even some of the cards seem to have a cynical edge to them. Warner Bros. Publicity sent out a card that has a series of made-up critic quotes trashing Christmas, such as “This is going to be the worst holiday season ever. Seriously, if last year is any indicator, this will genuinely be a nightmare,” and “For the last time, I’m not coming home this year. I hate my whole damn drunken family.” (Inside, the P.R. department turns them into a rave by excerpting words here and there.)

Studios have relied heavily on packs of DVDs (Hollywood’s company script) as gifts this year. New Line, for instance, sent out a collection of “The Lord of the Rings” discs.

To be sure, those who pull the purse strings (and their assistants who put the calls through) are still getting showered with swag. Production chiefs, who are courted by every producer and agent in town, still have mountains of holiday cheer — in the form of Kiehl’s, booze and food — sitting outside their offices.

The top marketing execs who have the power to write checks to outside vendors — like ad agencies, trailer houses and research firms — are not reporting much of a slowdown. Likewise, high-level agents and their assistants have received plenty of loot.

“It’s the top and very bottom,” said an agency source, “and just like in every other part of the industry, the middle is getting squeezed.”

Interestingly, though, while many reported getting fewer gifts this year, nearly no one reported giving less. But the key culprit appears to be the rise over the last few years of the charity gift in lieu of a tchotchke.

ICM, for instance, announced in its Christmas cards that it was supporting the Motion Picture & Television Fund Foundation, Meals on Wheels and the Lollipop Theater Network.

William Morris lists seven different charities on its holiday greetings including Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the Children’s Health Fund and Habitat for Humanity.

Production companies have followed step. For instance, the Kennedy/Marshall Co. said it was supporting Heal the Bay, which works to restore the waters off Santa Monica. Walden Media is supporting two charter schools, in L.A. and outside Boston.

But giving to charity can have its perils, especially if someone doesn’t agree with the cause. Tom Cruise, for instance, sent out a framed copy of L. Ron Hubbard’s “Code of Ethics” with a letter noting, “A donation has been made in your name to the Intl. Assn. of Scientologists.”

The charitable gift approach can also lead to misunderstandings. CAA’s corporate card — a booklet really — announces a gift to the CAA Foundation, which in turn makes its own charitable contributions. But this year, some recipients thought that they were being asked to write a check themselves.

The last page reads: “We know of 10,000 students in Los Angeles, New York and Nashville who have very real needs. We invite you to make a connection and meet those needs in a very personalized way by choosing a gift of either art supplies, books, technology or sports equipment.” To drive the point home, a photo of one of those very adorable, needy kids is enclosed, along with a reply card and a stamped envelope.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” asked one studio exec who received the card.

CAA clarified that recipients are free to return the card with their choice of gift and the tenpercentery will make a donation in their stead.

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