And The Oscar Goes To...the IRS
Ernie Neve, CPA
February 27, 2019
Oscar night is the biggest night in Hollywood. The stars shine just a little bit brighter. The red carpets stretch just a little bit farther. And the bloated egos get just a little bit bloatier, if that's possible. (Here's looking at you, Bradley Cooper.) Ironically, fewer and fewer of us tune in to the actual ceremony. Why give up hours of your life watching celebrities congratulate each other when you could fit a couple of full-length movies in the same length of time?
Nominees for the top five prizes — Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Director — bring an extra guest to the party, in the form of the IRS. It's not because they take home any actual cash. It's because they leave with an "Everyone Wins" swag bag assembled by Distinctive Assets, a product-placement company that's not affiliated with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, but also not afraid to hitch their wagon to Oscar's relentless publicity machine.
Distinctive Assets has never been shy about promoting the value of their bag. In 2016, the collection, which included a 10-day trip to Israel, a 15-day "Walk Japan" tour, a year's worth of Audi rentals, and a 10,000-meal donation to the animal shelter of the donor's choice, crossed the $230,000 line. That sounds like a lot to the average fan. But it may not mean that much to the stars who can make north of $20 million per picture.
Of course, calling the bag a "gift" doesn't actually make it a gift. That's where the IRS comes in. The tax code defines a gift as something you get out of affection or respect. And while the Avaton Luxury Villas Resort in Greece may have really liked watching Christian Bale retreat to an undisclosed location in Vice, the real reason they're comping him a week at the beach is to attract new guests. So . . . the swag bag is taxable income. In fact, Distinctive Assets even sends the nominee a Form 1099 reminding them to report it!
This year's bag includes the usual collection of glamour vacations, including a small-ship cruise to Iceland, the Galapagos, the Amazon, or Costa Rica & Panama. You'll also find the sort of only-in-Hollywood treats you would expect: Coda Signature gift boxes with cannabis-infused hand-painted truffles and chocolate bars, private phobia-relief sessions with the world's #1 phobia expert, a CloSYS "spa kit for your mouth," and a PETA spy pen to help blow the whistle on animal abuse.
But this year, there's no price tag. "A great gift has nothing to do with the retail value," Distinctive Assets founder Lash Fary said in a statement. "For years we have been breaking one of the cardinal rules of gift giving by disclosing the price tag. Instead, we are trying to start a new tradition by simply celebrating the fun and festive nature of this legendary gift bag." (Of course, they'll still be declaring an amount on those 1099s they send next January.)
What if Best Supporting Actor Mahershala Ali doesn't want the tax headaches that come with his goodies? He can always give some to charity. (Does he really need the Blush & Whimsy limited-edition rose gold lipstick?) But he still has to report the value of anything he re-gifts in his income before deducting it as a charitable gift.
Last year, the Academy proposed a new award for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film. It would be the first new category since Best Animated Feature in 2001. And it gives us hope that, someday, they'll add an Oscar for Best Performance in Tax Planning. Wouldn't that be great? We'll keep you posted and let you know when to look for us on the red carpet!