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The Evolution of the Oscar Gift Bag

Some of this year's Oscar bag goodies.EXPAND
Some of this year's Oscar bag goodies.
Kristina Estlund/Distinctive Assets

The Oscar gift bag began in 2001 as sort of a children's party favor for the nominees and presenters. You know, just a little $10,000 goodie bag filled with some candy and trinkets. It quickly morphed into a six-figure behemoth stuffed with mink eyelashes, silk kimonos, cashmere pajamas and $45,000 African safaris.

The 2004 bag included a gift certificate for a resort in Mexico that Gwyneth Paltrow, a presenter that year, used for her honeymoon with Coldplay singer Chris Martin, according to the Daily Beast. That year's $120,000 unwieldy satchel also included a 43-inch high-def TV. The following year's bag's value soared even higher, to $150,000.

That attracted the evil eye of the Internal Revenue Service, which asked for its piece of the swag pie in 2006, dubbing the goodies "income," the Huffington Post reported. That move put a serious damper on the gift bags, and their value plummeted (well, respectively). Last year's bag was the "cheapest" ever, containing items worth a mere $47,802, down about $10,000 from the 2012 bag.

However, "The reality is that movie stars don't really live their lives making decisions based on the tax implications," says Lash Fary, whose company Distinctive Assets has put together the Oscar gift bag since its inception. "Celebrities are accustomed to having their accountants handle that sort of thing."

Now, on the other side of the bell curve, today's less-valuable bag ($75,000) is a truly odd mish-mash of luxury trips, medical services, very high-end and rather low-rent items. Or, as Fary says, "a great balance of high-end products along with practical commodities that everyone, regardless of stardom, can use and appreciate."

The gift bag is no longer given to all of the nominees and presenters. Instead, it's dubbed the "Everybody Wins" bag, and just 20 bags (or boxes, actually) are delivered to the losing nominees in the best actor/actress, best supporting actor/actress and best director categories the morning after the awards show, "to lift their spirits," Fary says.

Why don't the winners get the bags anymore? "The winner gets an Oscar! This was meant as a fun consolation gift," Fary says. Only one person has ever refused to accept the bag, and that was Sandra Oh, he says. On the other hand, "Other celebs like Diane Keaton have sent lovely notes."

The standard fee for a "sponsor" to have their item included in the bag is $4,000 (that's right, companies pay to give their products away), with the hope that a celebrity will be photographed using or wearing the product. Fary's goal is to include an eclectic range of products from a broad range of categories, such as beauty items, things for children and pets, trips and tech stuff. "Since this is a consolation gift, we always include lots of chocolate and liquor," he says.

The big-ticket item in this year's bag, for the 86th Academy Awards on Sunday, is a $15,000 customized walking tour of Japan. Oscars host Ellen DeGeneres is providing a gift certificate to donate 10,000 meals of her dog food line to the animal shelter of the recipient's choice. (All trips are non-transferrable, and in general, only 10 percent of gift certificates are redeemed, Fary says.)

Besides a few luxury trips, it is clear that the days of cashmere, silk, diamonds and flatscreen TVs are over. Most of the brands included in this year's bag tend to be on the low-end or I've-never-heard-of side. For example, instead of a pricey haircare line, the bag contains products from Mane N Tail, which was originally developed for shampooing horses and is sold at CVS and Walgreens. Even the expensive items are sort of misfit toys ("honee" made from apples, ayurvedic "Dosha" lollipops with names like Chai Me Up and Inner Glow), and one wonders if their values are inflated, such as electrolyte spray supplements for pets valued at $1,571 and gourmet maple syrup, which hopefully contains chunky gold flakes as it is valued at $50 a bottle. It's easy to conclude that for some reason - perhaps because the bags no longer go to the winners? -  many of the high-end luxury brands have lost interest in participating in the giveaway. 

Other items in the goodie bag include weight-loss gummies; Swiss watches; a tiny clip-on camera (for celebrity creepers?);  "bespoke teas"; MACE pepper spray guns ("hot pink for her, camo for him," $120); the Steamist Total Sense Home Spa System ($2,560); Loaded: The Story of a Ghost, a graphic novel, $49.95; leather iPhone cases; circus aerial lessons for kids ($575); adoption of a maple tree for life ("priceless!"); cable-knit mittens; and, besides the Japan trip, jaunts to the Canadian Rockies, Hawaii, Mexico and Las Vegas.

"Preparation-intensive trips like African safaris tend to go unredeemed for a myriad of reasons, so we no longer include them," Fary says. "We expect a much higher redemption rate for the Ultimate Vegas Entertainment Package we are including this year."

Plus, these days Fary has competition in the giveaway game. Other companies have glommed onto the gifting idea. Doris Bergman just hosted her 6th Annual Valentine Romance Oscar Style Lounge & Party at West Hollywood's Fig & Olive restaurant February 13. It's sort of like a fair with little booths that companies set up to give away their products to celebrities and "other industry VIPS." Stopping by this year were, among others, Angela Bassett, Dot-Marie Jones (of Glee), Louis Gossett, Jr., William Shatner and Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong. The only current Oscar nominee, however, was Robin Mathews (make-up artist for Dallas Buyers Club).

Bergman says gifting "suites" or "lounges" such as hers are better than a bag because "celebrities, stylists, media and VIPS get to meet the sponsors one-on-one and learn first-hand about the product or service that the sponsor is providing. There is no substitute for a 'hands-on' experience versus finding something random in a gift bag." She points out that attendees get to pick out their own cocktail dresses, watches and jewelry. Ed Begley Jr. was even on hand at her event, pouring samples of his Begley & Bill's natural soda so that celebs could select the flavors they liked best to take home.

Fary counters that "All of the gifting suites that pop up at various hotels during Oscar week rarely, if ever, have the actual major nominees we gift attend. So our gift bag promotion allows clients to reach the exact individuals they want to reach in a relevant and impactful way... . The gifting suites prioritize a possible photo opp with someone on a TV show that has nothing to do with Oscars over making sure their products are in the hands of the major nominees such as Meryl, Julia, Jennifer and Amy."

Plus, some items simply don't lend themselves to being handed out in person, such as the most unusual item in Fary's gift bag this year, which oddly enough didn't make the official press release: a gift certificate for the "O-shot," a vaginal rejuvenation treatment.

What would Meryl, Julia, Jennifer and Amy think of that?

We will politely refuse to speculate.


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