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Awards gifters keep taxman at bay

Changing rules promote move toward services, charity

Swag has had a Hollywood makeover, with leaner and more purposeful gifting the norm, coupled with a charitable component on the side.

Reacting to a crackdown from the Internal Revenue Service that began in earnest in 2007, the ubiquitous gift bag stuffed with pricey goodies has been downscaled to comply with IRS gift regs that limit the total value of the items inside to less than $600. Although gifting suites thrive (the Sundance Film Festival saw no shortage of product giveaways), luxury products are gone.

“Gifting has shifted away from highly expensive items distributed in public,” says Ryan Heil, managing partner LIVE-style Entertainment, producers of the AXE hair media lounge at Sundance. Rather, he says, “It makes sense to introduce talent to products in a meaningful way that is experiential and relevant.” To that end, LIVEstyle’s venue supplied services like hair and makeup to Sundancers, helping them get camera-ready — with the hope that those who liked the results would become fans of the product.

As things has evolved, says Jane Ubell-Meyer, CEO of celebrity gifting firm Madison & Mulholland, it has become harder to attract bigger names to product-rich suites. So another approach, she explains, is for brands to donate items to be included in a gift bag that talent is auctioning for the benefit of a favorite charity. “Gifting for charities is the way to go,” she says. “Everybody wins.”

SAG Foundation president JoBeth Williams concedes that gifting is “not like the old days.” “Presenters’ bags are much more limited,” she says. The org now focuses on online auctions that complement the kudocast, with bidding on donated memorabilia, craft items (Anthony Hopkins donated a painting recently) and autographed programs and branded souvenirs from the show.

Cyd Wilson, director of creative development for People, which underwrites the post-SAG Awards gala, finds that companies are “goodie-bagged out,” and have become more selective when placing their brands, owing partly to the expense of giving away a great deal of product.

DPA’s Nathalie Dubois still sees a need for the suites, however. “Smaller companies do not always have the budgets for publicity,” she says. “We provide them an international platform and exposure.”

Dubois adds that she didn’t see much difference in attendance at her seventh annual gift lounge in the run-up to this year’s Golden Globes, held in the Luxe Hotel Rodeo Drive’s penthouse.

Dubois has exported the gifting concept to global industry events as well, from the Cesar Awards in Paris to suites in conjunction with the Hong Kong, Cannes and Dubai film fests.

Those events, presumably, are not on the IRS’ radar.

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