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Nomineering, Week 7: Why the Oscars swag issue is bigger than those $200,000 gift bags

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Because Emmanuel Lubezki deserves that luxury vape pen

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Welcome to Nomineering, where we take a weekly look at the news and stories behind the most lavish, high-budget spectacle the film industry has to offer: Oscar season. No matter how you feel about them, awards are one of the key ways to gut check what Hollywood itself thinks is important, with winning films often opening doors and setting the agenda for which kind of movies will be made in the coming years — and which ones won’t. From the surprise nominations that foretell an upset, to the last minute surges that see the most unlikely of films, um, crash into a Best Picture win, Nomineering tells the story from the beginning of the year all the way until the ceremony itself. This week we look at the Academy’s recent problems with… gift bags?

Last week we looked at The Revenant’s various Oscar chances, and mentioned that if cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki won at the American Society of Cinematographer Awards that he would practically be a lock. He did just that Sunday night, but while he may end up a winner on February 28th, most of the nominees will go home empty handed. Except for the big-name acting and directing nominees, that is; they’ll be collecting a gift bag worth over $200,000 — one so extravagant and weird, in fact, that the Academy filed suit against the company that’s making the bags earlier this week.

Welcome to the "celebrity placement" business

It works like this: a company called Distinctive Assets is in what is called the "celebrity placement" business. They get companies’ products in the hands of famous people — or written about about alongside the names of famous people — as a means of promotion, and one of the main ways they do that is through gift bags or gifting lounges. They had one of their lounges set up at the Grammys, for example (that’s Pauley Perrette from NCIS below, stopping by and checking out a jacket), but when it comes to the Academy Awards, it’s more of an on-the-sly thing. They called their basket this year "The 14th Annual ‘Everyone Wins’ Nominee Gift Bags in honor of the Academy Awards®," and there’s one earmarked for every acting and directing nominee.

The problem is people really like writing about these bags because they’re such a galling example of class inequality, and due to some sloppy reporting from some outlets, this year’s bags were often framed as packages the Academy itself has put together. The scenario became doubly problematic given what items were included: a vape, a vibrator, a cosmetic procedure called a "vampire breast lift" (here, I’ll save you the Googling), weight-loss gummi bears, and trips to Israel and Italy, amongst other items. You may be wondering why Bryan Cranston needs a vibrator and a breast lift, but that’s all besides the point. The press ran wild, and the Academy decided it had had enough, saying in its suit that Distinctive Assets’ "acts have damaged, and will irreparably damage, the Academy," while also complaining that coverage had focused on "the unseemliness of giving such high value gifts … to an elite group of celebrities."

The Academy may have a self-perception problem

Now, given details in the court filing about a previous agreement between Distinctive Assets and the Academy, it certainly appears the company may be playing a little fast and loose with its taglines. And when it tweets out stories about itself saying, "This gift bag will make you depressed you’re not famous!" it’s pretty obvious these are some gross people that know exactly what buttons they’re pushing. But amid all their finger-pointing, the Academy is likely hoping people will forget that the Oscars themselves actually did hand out luxury gift baskets to presenters for decades. When they finally called off the practice in 2006, it wasn’t because they saw it as unseemly, either; it was because the IRS was cracking down due to tax concerns. (The gift bag the Academy Awards gave out in 2006 was reportedly valued at $100,000 — hardly a sign they were concerned with the optics of giving expensive gifts to celebrities.)

The larger point the Academy seems to be missing is that it’s all too easy to think of the Oscars as an elitist event in which millionaire stars are given hundreds of thousands of dollars of free gear because that’s the way the event itself is presented and marketed. It’s a couture-clad showcase centered around gold statues, in which fetishizing jewelry and fashion choices is a legitimate pre-game warm-up. This week wasn’t the Academy taking a principled stand; it was the Academy striking back because it didn’t like the products it was being associated with. And that's fine — it shouldn’t be made to effectively endorse products against its will. But pretending that there's some sort of PR damage being done due to poor taste and excess is ridiculous. If the Academy is really concerned that celebrity freebies are tarnishing its image, perhaps it should be proactive instead of reactive, and take steps that one of its own members suggested way back in 2006.

"If these evenings are going to be a celebration of our craft and what we express about what’s going on in the world, then picking through $35,000 gift baskets is disgusting and shameful," Edward Norton told New York Magazine when asked about his feelings on the issue. "My suggestion was to have the Academy commit to contributions in the name of the winners, but I don’t know what will come of that."

Catch up with awards season news from the week:

Emmanuel Lubezki wins ASC Award for The Revenant
"It was Lubezki’s fourth win in the feature film category from the elite cinematographer organization, and his third consecutive triumph." (Variety)

First Oscars handed out as Academy presents Scientific and Technical Awards in lively ceremony
"These awards have been an Academy staple since 1931, when the Scientific and/or Technical category was introduced with awards going to the likes of noise-reduction recording equipment and super-sensitive panchromatic film." (Deadline)

The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio dominate BAFTA Awards
"Alejandro G. Inarritu’s The Revenant came up trumps at the 69th British Academy Film Awards on Sunday night, nabbing five prizes including best film, director and leading actor." (Variety)

Academy sues over Oscars gift bag with vape pens and vibrators
"The Academy is now seeking an injunction and trebled profits and damages." (The Hollywood Reporter)