'Tis the (Oscar) Season of Gifting

In the countdown to the 78th annual Academy Awards on March 5, what's to be revealed in the envelope is not the only source of high anticipation.

Speculation also abounds as to what Tinseltown treasures will be spilling out of the awards ceremony gift bag this year. The gift bag is that high-end "thank you" celebrity presenters and winners get at the end of an extraordinary evening. Last year's Oscar gift bag was worth around $100,000.

These days the gift bag or basket can grab as much press as Nicole Kidman's designer dress or George Clooney's date. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences controls the gifting process by having it handled by an in-house company. The contents are a carefully guarded secret until a few days before the ceremony.

Business Boost

Star-studded product proximity can mean money in the bank to retailers and service providers chosen for a place among any of the important awards' season freebies.

"By associating their product with a celebrity, it typically equates to a great marketing opportunity for them," said Karen Woods, whose company, Backstage Creations, is in the top tier of this niche market and produced celebrity gifting for this year's Screen Actors Guild awards. "Ultimately, that is the end result they are looking for."

Woods and other producers of the "gifting experience" have expanded the concept beyond the confines of a bag or basket -- referred to as swag. Celebrity participants at the SAG awards were ushered from rehearsal or the ceremony to a "gift retreat" behind the stage for a proper thank you.

In relative privacy and ease, stars could avail themselves of a dizzying array of treasures, including rare perfumes made for Arabian royalty, pearl bracelets from an exclusive Los Angeles boutique, and an all-expenses-paid vacation at an exclusive Bora Bora resort. The trio alone is worth more than $10,000.

Oscar-nominated actor Terrence Howard was gracious in accepting the gift of a LeVian watch and allowed a "photo op," a picture that can be worth so much more than a thousand words to gift donators after it's seen by fans.

"They flip through Us Weekly and People magazine and InStyle, and they see how every product that is mentioned has a celebrity attached to it," said Lash Fary, owner of Distinctive Assets and known as the sultan of swag.

"What we do really provides true value for these companies."

Fary's firm orchestrated this year's Grammy Awards gifting. The treasure chest for music industry stars was worth approximately $65,000 and included a $5,600 coupon for laser eye surgery, $750 worth of mink eyelashes, and a $3,000 Gibson guitar.

Return on Investment

Depending on whether a company seeks inclusion in a gift basket or a table in the gift lounge, the price of participation can run from $1,000 to $20,000 per show, in addition to the cost of each "donation" to scores of celebrity bags.

In an era of shrinking marketing budgets, expensive television ads, and the proliferation of recording technology enabling consumers to skip past the pitch, hooking up with a sultan of swag can be a good strategy.

Fary described the payoff for a Web-based vintage jeans company called White Trash Palace, which was included in the Grammy gift basket.

"A couple of members of the popular Black Eyed Peas group called them after, and they are now creating jeans for the band's tour. That's not access most normal fashion companies have. Everyone wants to dress celebrities, but how do you do it?" he asked.

Fary also described couture designer Escada's pursuit of Teri Hatcher of ABC's "Desperate Housewives." It finally paid off at the Grammys when the star took a fancy to the line's ski jackets in the gifting lounge.

Squeamish Celebs

Not all celebrities are comfortable with what can be perceived as excess laid out before people who "have it all."

Some already have endorsement deals they must protect. Others are sincerely concerned about being perceived as greedy, even if the products are openly given as "thank you" gifts. Fary admitted to getting e-mails from a public sometimes upset with the proliferation of celebrity freebies.

Actor Keanu Reeves -- who will be a presenter at this year's Oscars -- got a lot of attention last year when he refused to accept any gifts for attending the Sundance Film Festival. Comedian and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres routinely auctions off some of her celebrity freebies and gives the proceeds to charity.

And charitable is what Fary plans to be to this year's Oscar "also-rans."

While the resourceful sultan of swag cannot have a hand in the official Academy gifting, six categories of nominees who come away without a gold statue will be offered a lavish gift bag worth more than $46,000. It includes a three-day, all-expenses-paid Vegas resort retreat, which may help to make it all better.