At the 91st Academy Awards this Sunday evening, only a select few will take home the gold. But win or lose, all 25 acting and directing nominees receive a lavish gift bag from Los Angeles-based Distinctive Assets, a celebrity and product placement marketing company.
This year’s Oscars gift bag is valued at $148,000, considerably more than the $400 material value of the 24-karat gold-plated Oscars statuette. The fair market value of all 25 bags combined is $3.7 million—or roughly the same amount the independent film Juliet, Naked brought in at the box office. The Oscars gift bag is a hallmark of awards season, though Distinctive Assets is not affiliated with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which presents the Oscars.
In Distinctive Assets’ 20-year history providing gift bags to Oscar nominees, typically only one nominee turns it down per year. Glenn Close, nominated for The Wife, will have her bag donated to a women’s charity in her name. In fact, “bag” is something of a misnomer. The nominees are offered so many free items that they are actually delivered in multiple suitcases the week before the ceremony.
In addition to physical gifts, nominees are given vouchers to redeem the big-ticket items, such as this year’s most expensive gift: a luxury cruise for two to Iceland, the Galapagos, the Amazon or Central America—with spa treatments and a private chef included, all courtesy of International Expeditions. Depending on the location chosen, the trip’s value ranges from $15,000 to $20,000 per guest. If you prefer staycations, the cheapest item in this year’s Oscars bag is a package of Pepperidge Farm Milanos for just under $5.
Among the other gifts are a one-week inclusive stay at Golden Door spa (starting at $9,000), fashion jewelry from Millianna ($495), a bottle of French absinthe from A. Junod ($60) and up to $30,000 in non-surgical rejuvenation treatments from Manhattan plastic surgeon Dr. Konstantin Vasyukevich.
Lash Fary, dubbed “the Sultan of Swag,” originally founded Distinctive Assets in 1999 as a private showroom for costume designers for television shows, including Spin City. The following year, Fary produced his first backstage gift suite for the Grammys. “We tried it on a whim and it was such a huge success,” the 47-year-old Fary says. “We just celebrated our 20th Grammy anniversary a couple weeks ago.” Since that first broadcast, Distinctive Assets has produced suites for nearly every top award show, including the Tonys and the American Music Awards, and also works year-round on private events for celebrities and brands.
Brands pay a minimum of $4,000 to be included in a Distinctive Assets gift bag and the price for presenting sponsors soars to $50,000, and they are on the hook for all physical items given as well as redeemed gifts. The cost, though not exactly negligible, is a pittance compared to, for example, the $2.1 million price tag for a 30-second television ad during the Oscars.
“It’ a mixed bag, literally and metaphorically,” says Michael Stone, chairman and cofounder of branding agency Beanstalk. It’s a perfect match for some clients, such as Alexis Seletzky, a trainer who has included his services in the Oscars gift bag for several years. “The trainer can say he is a trainer to the stars, but Pepperidge Farms, I’m not so sure,” Stone says. “But if anyone is caught using a product — just one celebrity, just one t-shirt, they’ve got their money’s worth.”
In 2013, for example, Amy Adams, nominated that year for American Hustle, was photographed wearing a gifted t-shirt while walking to the gym with her then-fiancé Darren Le Gallo.
“The two of them are like a little walking billboard for the gift bag that we had delivered to them the day before,” Fary recalls. “I’m hoping that Amy will do us a solid and wear [another t-shirt] to the gym after we deliver her gift bag this year.”
Much like movie budgets, the value of an “Everyone Wins” bag has skyrocketed over the past two decades. In 2002, Distinctive Assets made headlines with a $20,000 gift bag that included a $350 meditation chair and $1,900 platinum and diamond earrings. In 2015, the bag’s fair market value reached six figures at $160,000, a twofold increase over the prior year, and hit an all-time high of $232,000 in 2016.
Since then, Fary has been more discerning about items to include in the gift bag and no longer tries to increase the monetary value year over year. “It was a no-win proposition,” he says. “I really just really wanted to stop the focus being on the price tag because no one who was receiving it really cares.” Fary, who says he gets thousands of brand inquiries a year, rejects many sex toys and sex enhancement products. “My original intention obviously with products like that was actually that it would be a discrete way for people like Amy Adams who can’t walk into The Pleasure Chest like most of us and pick up a vibrator,” Fary explains. “Now I don’t include products of a sexual nature, not because I’m a prude, but I just felt like it really derailed all of the press coverage.”
About the most controversial items in this year’s Oscars bag are several CBD and THC products, including cannabis facial oil from High Beauty ($54), handcrafted chocolate edibles from Coda Signature (sold through Colorado dispensaries at approximately $25) and a membership to MOTA Los Angeles, an upcoming cannabis-friendly social club (starting at $2,000 a year). Distinctive Assets saw a huge increase in inquiries from cannabis companies since recreational marijuana was legalized in California in 2018.
And while the nominees are surely wealthy enough to afford all these free items, receiving them still comes with a price—recipients have to pay income tax for the monetary value of all accepted gifts.
In other words, it’s not enough just to thank the Academy.
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