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The big freebie freeze

Acad reaches deal with IRS on goodie bags

Get ready for the swag tax.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will announce today that it has reached a settlement with the Internal Revenue Service regarding income tax on Oscar gift baskets — a small move that could signal seismic implications in the gift-giving culture of Hollywood.

Under the agreement, the Academy has settled with the IRS on swag bags handed out through 2005. As for those who received goodies in 2006, the tax is their responsibility.

And as for 2007 and beyond — well, Oscar presenters may not have to worry. In April, the Academy board of governors quietly voted to discontinue gift bags.

Other awards shows and showbiz events will soon have to decide their stance. Concurrent with the Acad announcement will be a press release from the IRS announcing an “outreach” program regarding the taxability of gift bags and swag. The IRS says it will contact showbiz groups to focus attention on tax guidelines.

The Academy approached the IRS several months ago to clarify tax issues, after the government org sent out a press release three days before the March 5 Oscarcast. In that release, the IRS explained that gift baskets are income, not gifts, and that “movie stars face the same tax obligations as ordinary Americans.”

As part of the IRS agreement, the Academy is keeping a lid on exact figures. The settlement covers everything prior to this year, but everyone is mum on further details of the settlement.

The Oscar gift basket — given to presenters and performers on the show — is considered the primo bit of swag in a season full of goodies. This year’s bag was stuffed with such items as a BlackBerry 8700c, a Canon DC10 camcorder and a six-night stay in a Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa.

The IRS-Academy decision will have a ripple effect on other awards shows and their gift bags. In addition, there could be repercussions on everything from gifting suites to lavish bonuses and pricey perks in Hollywood.

Hollywood is just one of the targets as the IRS gets tough on corporate benefits and extras. The government agency last year issued guidelines that cracked down on such things as executives’ personal travel on corporate jets (i.e., with the shareholders essentially paying for a honcho’s vacation). Also being eyed are bonuses and exit packages.

In its March press release, the IRS gave the first signal that Hollywood swag was under the microscope. While many in Hollywood were aware of the statement, most dismissed it as a “don’t forget to eat your vegetables”-style reminder with no consequences.

An added wrinkle was added this month on the TV side. The Academy of TV Arts & Sciences sent out letters to participants in the Aug. 27 Emmy Awards, advising them they will be responsible for paying taxes on their gift bags.

The TV Academy sent participants a form that was to be signed and returned, stating that the presenter acknowledged personal responsibility for paying taxes on the swag. ATAS informed presenters they would not receive a bag unless they signed. The letter also said ATAS will make “determinations” this year about its tax-reporting obligations to the IRS and other tax authorities.

The tradition of Oscar gift baskets started in the 1970s, as a way of saying thanks to presenters and performers (e.g., singers) on the kudocast. (Nominees do not receive the gift basket.) But the habit extended to other orgs and became increasingly elaborate. Gift baskets this year were estimated to be worth somewhere between $40,000 and $100,000.

A question is stars’ incentive to appear at industry events. Stars are there to plug their latest works — but they love freebies. So how easy will it be to corral actors without the bait?

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