The gift of getting

Times Staff Writer

'Tis the season of swag, when marketing execs shower celebrities and their "influencers" with free stuff in the hopes that Hollywood will lend some of its invaluable cachet to their bottom lines.

While product placement is overwhelming during the September-to-March awards season, it reaches a crescendo around the Oscars, when the bounty booms tenfold. Publicists, agents, even entertainment journalists are bombarded by an odd assortment of goods, from crystal-studded money clips to organic tranquilizers.

"We just get swamped with these things," says publicist Catherine Olim, whose clients include Oscar nominees Nicole Kidman and Ed Harris. In the weeks following the nominations announcement, her office was awash in flowers, champagne and invites to spa retreats. "You should see what our office looks like."

"It's a business deal," says shoe designer Stuart Weitzman. "It's not just about fashion." In addition to the $1.5-million ruby slipper he designed to be worn by several actresses on Oscar night, Weitzman has created a series of shoes adorned with feathers and Swarovski crystals for starlets attending the ceremony, shoes that won't be available to the public until summer. "We certainly want to be represented 20, 30, 40 times over that night if we can," he says.

The custom of giving gift baskets to award winners and presenters has become an enormous cottage industry. The baskets are more expensive -- valued at as much as $25,000 each -- and are showing up everywhere. They're handed out at nearly every awards show leading up to and including the March 23 ceremony.

Then there's the gift bag. Nearly every boutique opening and flashy nightclub gathering in town partners with cosmetics or liquor companies, magazines or sunglasses manufacturers, which in turn use the events to pawn their latest wares to the perceived Hollywood "in crowd."

For liquor companies, Los Angeles' vast landscape of cocktail parties has become prime real estate for launching new libations. Among them is Bacardi, which plans to premiere its new Bacardi O by holding open bars at Los Angeles-area beauty salons, nightclubs and hotels during Oscar week, and even an "after deadline" cocktail party at the Hollywood Reporter. "We're trying to influence the influencers," says Celio Romanach, a marketing vice president. "Hopefully, by two or three degrees of separation, we can get to these stars."

Former talent coordinator Karen Wood has designed yet another gift-giving opportunity, called Backstage Creations. Wood interviews celebrity publicists to determine their clients' hobbies or interests, then selects merchandise to match. "At the Essence Awards, we read that Halle Berry enjoyed roller-blading so we brought Skechers 4 Wheelers," Wood says. For tonight's Screen Actors Guild awards, she has created a backstage "shopping area" where stars can make up their own gift packages, choosing among designer shoes, handcrafted dinnerware and a seven-night stay in Patagonia. "It's a lot more meaningful for celebrities," Wood says.

For last year's Grammys, Distinctive Assets, which creates gift baskets, produced specially designed tableware for Gwen Stefani and sunglasses for Bono. "Let's face it, they can buy whatever they want," the company's co-manager, Lash Fary, said at the time. It was that philosophy that inspired Diane Hansen, a former human resources director at Playboy magazine, and Emmy Blume, a voice-over actor, to reposition their Swarovski crystal-studded money clips as glamorous devices for holding Oscar acceptance speech notes. "Just to have [the clip] attached with the name ... raises the bar," Blume says.

Fortunes are made at times like these. At least that's what the folks at Pinnacle banked on when they sent nominees bottles of Rhodax, which the company's marketing vice president, Andrew Fischman, says "provides natural mood support." The herbal supplement has been on the market just two months.

"When we saw the Golden Globes and Jack Nicholson said, 'Thank God I just took a Valium,' the lights went off," Fischman says. "Let's be realistic. If Nicole Kidman gets on the podium and says, 'I took Rhodax,' that may be all that's needed ....People look to celebrities to see what they're doing, what they're using, so they can emulate these people."

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