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The suite smell of swag

Showbizzers flip for freebies at gift lounges designed to please

Industry-fueled swag free-for-alls hit a new high — or maybe that’s low — at Sundance last month, where report after report of borderline pushy behavior trickled out of the fest designed to celebrate indie film.

The most coveted celebs walked away from gift lounges with fur coats, flat-screen TVs and sleek $500 cell phones, while pseudo celebs and even some wily filmmakers raked in countless other goodies on the swag circuit. This despite some efforts to limit gifting to thesps and filmmakers associated with the fest or by requiring invited guests to journey to their off-site ranch or lodge.

The frenzy prompted murmurs of “carnival” and “oversaturation,” yet there’s no sense the escalating gift grab will die down there — or any other big showbiz events — anytime soon.

Certainly, there’s no dearth of Oscar suites and lounges this week. Red Carpet ’05, a new weeklong showcase of up-and-coming designers at the Pacific Design Center, joins traditional hotel suites and spas, along with umpteen diamond suites, including a Kwiat lounge with a kickoff event promising a free sparkler in one of its “Diamond-tinis,” and another featuring the Francis Coppola Diamond Collection. Who knew the “Godfather” capo had spread from wine and spaghetti sauce to diamonds?

Organizers say gifting events have skyrocketed because they provide goods manufacturers prime celeb outreach for a relatively low cost. And helps organizers make a pretty penny in the process.

“There’s been an explosion because it works,” says Jeffrey Best, who produced Sundance’s Village at the Lift, where Fred Segal and Philips Electronics set up shop. “There are suites for everything — awards shows you didn’t even know existed.”

“It’s a win-win situation,” says Melissa Lemer, co-founder of the Silver Spoon Hollywood Buffet. “You’re giving people free stuff. First of all it’s good stuff from Barneys, Bergdorf and Neiman’s. Then you have celebrities who are going there and they are going to get their photos taken with the product.”

And this, she adds, helps smaller designers get their product placed in Fred Segal or Bergdorf’s.

Organizers charge placement fees that range from $1,000 for celeb gift bags to $10,000 for one exclusive category in a suite; sponsorship for a Sundance lounge climbs up to the $150,000 range. Participants pony up again with the actual goods they giveaway; the organizer often stipulates the amount of goods.

At the recent SAG Backstage Creations suite, for example, participants provided 100 gifts for presenters and winners only. Sponsors at this week’s Silver Spoon Hollywood Buffet for men, which will draw a wider list of attendees, agree to provide 300 gifts.

By contrast, Motorola and Levi’s let invited guests select the goodie of their choosing at their Sundance outposts.

“This year’s hot phone was the Razr phone, which is $500,” says David Pinsky, director of entertainment marketing for Motorola. “Everybody wanted it at Sundance.”

Pinsky estimates Motorola “probably gave at most 120 products” priced between $150 and $499 in 10 days.

Levi’s had tailors at its ranch to customize outfits.

Over at the Philips lounge, goodies included Nike MP3 players, keyring camcorder and, yes, some ambilight flat screen TVs. “We did have them in the lounge and I do think people were very taken with them,” a rep admits.

Like the Philips rep, Pinsky calls the return on investment from such outreach “enormous.” “You know what phone Sarah Jessica Parker used in the last scene of ‘Sex and the City’?” he quizzes, letting the question answer itself.

Marketers talk up the relatively low cost of gifting versus traditional endorsement deals. With gifting, points out Kathy Carpenter, who produced the Gibson Guitar lounge at Sundance where coveted attendees walked away with a fur coat from Aspen Fur Fashions as well as a guitar and snowboard, you get your product directly into the hand of celebrity and a potential photo of it.

“Pictures of Glenn Close playing guitar — those are priceless,” she says.

“Some people obviously didn’t get fur coats,” she adds. “We told them the coats were for photo shoots and could be used for that.”

GettyImages, Variety‘s official photographer, ran a photo studio in connection with the lounge.

Others coded attendees for gifting, with even well-known directors receiving second-tier status. Certain companies simply strive to place their goods with people who actually use the product.

Thus Michelle Rodriguez, an avid gamer, received a bejeweled joystick while a vamping starlet in the same lounge only got a T-shirt.

Despite these efforts to stem swag free-for-alls, industryites acknowledge certain celebs take advantage of the freebies, taking things they don’t want or need, then passing them off to their housekeepers or relatives.

“It’s a nice service and it keeps people occupied, but some people’s behavior can become whore-ific,” says BMI’s Hanna Pantle, a Sundance vet who was taken aback at this year’s swag grab.

The politics of gifting is tricky, admits Red Carpet ’05 producer Ryan Black, “and something we deal with in production meetings. I tell all the designers: Look, you’ve got a luxury item; you don’t just don’t hand it anyone who comes in the room.

“You’ve got a $500 handbag. Protect your brand.”

Others try to de-emphasize the swag for swag’s sake mentality by hosting retreats off the main gifting drag. Frederic Fekkai decamped from hotel suites several years ago to offer an Oscar retreat with Chanel at his BevHills salon.

“We don’t want two to three hundred people coming through our doors,” says W associate publisher Virginia Healey, who estimates the mag’s Oscar retreat will get 50 people a day max at its two-day retreat.

This year, W’s adding a greater fashion component — and therefore more gifting opportunities — to its two-day spa. Besides beauty treatments, attendees can pick up customized Lancome makeup or a pair of shoes from Harrys of London.

No one really expects the Hollywood swagathon to go away.

“Let’s face it, this is the new advertising,” says Backstage Creation’s Karen Wood, who notes that major companies now have divisions for celebrity gifting and placement. “Old advertising has gone by the wayside.”

(Sharon Swart contributed to this report.)

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