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Gifting on the decline

Extravagant presents on holiday break

HOLLYWOOD — Despite a healthy boost in retail sales this holiday season, the Grinch may steal Hollywood’s Christmas yet again. Goodie baskets and extravagant gifts delivered to offices around town are on the decline.

“It dropped off considerably last December, and I think there will be even less this year,” said one studio exec. “I expect to get a lot of charitable donations made in my name.”

Traditionally, major agents are the biggest gifters because they feel inclined to reward the A-list clients who make them money and maintain their relationships with studios and networks. Independent producers — and anyone else hustling projects — are also known for their seasonal generosity. Networks play St. Nick to their hit TV showrunners and producers.

Who gets coal? Cutbacks are expected to be especially sharp at studios with a recent history of layoffs: Lavish presents and pinkslips don’t go hand in hand. And while almost every film and TV exec interviewed for this article agreed that gift giving is more subdued, no one would openly discuss holiday economics.

Studio heads smartly choose to bestow gifts that are hardly over the top. Last year, Brad Grey handed out the ever popular iPod Shuffle to his top execs. Ex-Universal honcho Stacey Snider gave her department a hodge-podge of her favorite things, including a book, DVD and a fancy pen.

In a town where countless bottles of Dom make the rounds, a few people stand out as very good elves. Jerry Bruckheimer has been known to give out Gucci wallets and expensive whiskey. Ron Meyer has a penchant for sending Ralph Lauren goods. Sid Ganis rewards his colleagues throughout the year with a box of chocolate nonpareils from the Harbor Candy Shop in Maine.

“My gift has no extravagance associated with it except that it is chocolate,” Ganis said. Does he up the poundage for VIPs? “Hell no! Everyone gets one pound.”

Such egalitarianism is hardly the norm, of course. Those who greenlight the most movies pull in the biggest haul. Even the assistant pool is affected by the power hierarchy. “Assistants to higher execs get better gifts from the agencies,” said one assistant at a studio.

At some agencies the practice for the past five years has been to gift studio execs’ assistants rather than the execs themselves. Last year, CAA sent mini-digital camcorders, while UTA bestowed Willy Wonka chocolate bars with certificates for cash prizes.

Agents typically send individual gifts to their clients — sometimes spending in excess of $10,000 for their entire list and expensing the spree in January. One personal shopper, who has more than 400 agents as clients, says that CAA agents tend to be the most generous, with ICMers second.

But for many, the days of lavish gift-giving are a distant memory.

Industryites wistfully recall the bygone tell-tale crinkle of a cellophane gift basket bearing enough cupcakes to sate first and second assistants. “Last year, we congregated in the hallway wondering, ‘Where is everything?’ ” said one ex-DreamWorks employee. “The baskets used to be crazy, gigantic.”

According to Bruce Feldman of Jasper & James, a personal shopping service that curates high-end gifts for the industry, expenditures will be less excessive this season. “The people are telling us that budgets are an issue and they are watching what they spend,” he said.

Economics aside, it will probably be producers with few projects and lots of free time who have the most to prove. “People who don’t have a lot going on are apt to be the showiest with gifts,” said an exec at an independent studio. “It’s like, you don’t want to show up at the party in a clunker car if you’re not working.”

Many studios are checking their lists twice, looking for ways to cut back. At one studio, creative alums won’t make the cut; only directors and talent on the 2006 project roster will receive presents.

“That could be the unspoken rule of thumb at a lot of places,” said another exec at a major studio upon hearing of the plan. “It’s a fair way to cut the list without making it seem personal.”

Getting too personal — or not personal enough — makes for inappropriate giving.

Though no one in Hollywood wants to out a bad Santa, stories abound. Among the worst: massage oil from a TV actor, a monogrammed cashmere robe from a major producer that bore the giver’s initials and a big basket of pricey booze sent to Joel Schumacher, who is upfront about being a recovering alcoholic.

Within studios and networks, it’s the ad buyers who get the most love. Vendors to production departments tend to send over-the-top gifts, too. But when it comes to playing Santa, Hollywood knows that the most important gift may be the one that keeps on giving: Topping most every list in town are those who have clout on the kudos campaigns and voting.

As one exec noted, “Holiday season is very close to awards season.” And what could be more heartwarming than that?

Read Monica Corcoran’s web exclusive column on Holiday gifting, What makes Santa run?

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