On Oscar Night, Even Losers Get the Loot

They arrive, on Oscar night, svelte, unencumbered and beaming for the popping cameras.

But what the cameras don't catch is the free loot the stars stash into the back of their limousines at the end of the show, or have shipped to their luxury homes.

It's called the "gift bag" in celebrity circles, the little collection of tchotchkes the stars and top studio execs take home after big shows as a sign of the consumer market's love.

Except that it's not, strictly speaking, a "bag" that we're talking about. These days, it's more like a whopper "gift basket" or a cavernous "gift sack" crammed with delectable items worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Last year, the luxury loot — which included video phones, mobile phones, jewelry, a $1,500-dinner party coupon, free spa offers and gym memberships valued at about $20,000 — arrived in an enormous wicker basket.

This year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been characteristically reticent about the contents of the much-sought after bag, which will be given to presenters and performers at Sunday's 76th Annual Academy Awards ceremony at the 3,100-seat Kodak Theatre.

The Academy however won't say how many bags are dished out or how much they're worth. "We don't talk about the gift bag," a spokeswoman for the academy told ABCNEWS.com. Earlier this year, the California-based organization imposed a strict media embargo on companies whose wares are featured in the 2004 Oscars bags.

'Official' and 'Unofficial' Loot

But with the embargo lifted Monday, the companies doing the giving are happy to spill the beans. This year's goodies sound like the modern-day equivalent of the sort of offerings emperors and kings of yesteryear graciously accepted at their imperial palaces.

The gold, frankincense and myrrh being offered to the stars this year include, among other things, "the ultimate HDTV package," consisting of a 43-inch Samsung high-definition projection TV that normally retails at $3,700, plus a subscription to the VOOM HDTV satellite service. The haul also includes airline tickets, offers at luxury suites, and a cornucopia of jewelry, beauty products, luxury food and champagnes. Industry insiders speculate that the whole bundle is worth upward of $25,000.

And that's just the "official" Oscar bags, assembled by the academy and presented to the stars on Oscar night. In addition to the academy bag, there are a host of "swag bags," as they are referred to in celebrity-speak. These include gift bags handed out to Oscar-nominated actors and actresses as well as "swag" doled out to a host of celebrities at the events on the sidelines of the big night.

"I think we are seeing, over the past two years, a significant trend in increased value of gift bags," says Samantha Haft, co-founder of On 3 productions, a New York-based event managing firm that produces gift bags for award ceremonies (though not for the Oscars). "Gone are the days of the 'paper bag, magazine and lip balm sample.' Today, gift bags have become an integral part of the overall 'story' an event tries to tell," she says.

A Logical Fit

Without a doubt, the overall story of the Oscars and the clutch of events surrounding the big night is promotion, promotion, promotion.

As luxury goods marketers fantasize and strategize about brands "fit for the stars," as the image of products seems to matter more than what they actually do, and as the stars themselves get as packaged, branded and marketed as a piece of soap, it's a perfectly logical fit.

"It's a fabulous way for organizers to thank the presenters," says Haft. "But more importantly, on the flip side, it's a tremendous marketing opportunity for the companies."

Bigger, Glitzier, More

Since the company began producing gift bags for big-draw events and awards ceremonies two years ago, On 3 Productions has created gift bags for the Sundance Film Festival, the MTV Video Music Awards and the IFP Independent Spirit Awards.

Over the years, Haft has seen the phenomenon get bigger, glitzier, more. At this year's Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday, On 3 Productions for instance, will be hosting a "gift lounge" after the show.

A sort of glamorized greenroom, the "gift lounge" features stalls with about 10 companies offering the celebrities an opportunity to "customize" their gift bags.

Featuring companies such as TiVo, Ray-Ban and Christian Dior, the "gift lounge" will let stars tailor their gifts of sunglasses, clothes and beauty products to suit their "look." The stars will even be offered a free LASIK eye procedure from an upscale eye institute, to correct anything from astigmatism to farsightedness.

"It's an opportunity to reach the celebrities, to get their feedback, to get their photos with the products," says Haft. "You and I know the value of a photo of Jennifer Aniston holding a product to the general public."

'Like Christmas Time'

While stressing that photos of the stars whooping it up with products are not treated as official endorsements, Haft says the real value lies in the image spin-off of being associated with the stars. "It's not only products in the hands of celebs, but it's the products in the hands of influential people, of trendsetters," she says.

All this marketing largesse, needless to say, is not democratically spread among all the film festival or award night attendees. As the value of goody bags increases, a pecking order has emerged for who gets what. At the 2004 Independent Spirit Awards for instance, those deemed worthy will receive "celebrity bags" worth approximately $21,000, while ordinary guests get "attendee bags" worth a mere $1,700.

The former will include an array of products stuffed into a spacious Kipling expandable suitcase, the "attendee bags" will feature a smaller selection of wares in a neat black leather bowling bag.

The escalating swag phenomenon raises an interesting question: why should wealthy stars get to go home with freebies they can well afford? Goods, it must be said, that are worth entire film budgets in some parts of the world.

But while celebrities may have fat wallets, Haft says they have feelings too. And that's just what companies like to tap into. "It's like Christmas time," she says. "I'd imagine that even the richest person in the world still celebrates Christmas and still gets excited by being gifted and being appreciated."