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Stars passing on red-carpet swag in Toronto

New IRS regulations are keeping celebrities from grabbing the goodies
/ Source: Reuters

Gift bags are more plentiful than ever at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, but there is a shortage of Hollywood stars lining up to get them.

Whether it’s the bad rap that some celebrities have gotten for shamelessly cleaning out gift lounges or the prospect of hauling the goods across the border where the U.S. Internal Revenue Service says stars must declare gifts from awards shows as taxable income, the attitude toward “swag” is changing fast.

The IRS said last month it is cracking down on the entertainment industry’s extravagant gift bags, unveiling an “outreach program” to remind celebrities that the merchandise they receive in exchange for appearing on award shows is taxable. The Oscars will discontinue their swag bags in 2007.

A pale comparison to the U.S. awards shows, where gift bags are worth between $40,000 and $100,000, the official TIFF premium gift bag was valued at $2,200 and included Ray-Ban sunglasses, Swarovski Crystal necklaces, gift certificates for Botox and luxury getaways, a Birks jeweler pendant, and other items.

Following the Sundance Film Festival’s lead, where separately sponsored gift lounges took off a couple years ago, the Toronto festival boasts at least 10 locations around the city.

At gaming Web site’s VIP lounge, celebrities are offered complimentary poker tables, online gaming, gourmet meals and the festival’s most expensive gift bag, valued at $6,000 (Canadian), which includes an XM Satellite Radio receiver, Nintendo DS Lite portable gaming system, Puma footwear, a ski resort gift certificate and more.

But stars are not lining up for them. Midway through the festival, the’s swanky restaurant lounge is almost empty.

“We think it may take a year or two for the buzz to start building,” said David Morelli from Cohn and Wolfe Public Relations. “We hear that celebrities have been very tightly reined in this year.

The inconvenience of hauling some of the heavier items has also been a drawback to swag, according to Debra Goldblatt, president of Rock-It Promotions, which is hosting the eTalk Tastemakers Celebrity Gift Lounge and focusing on smaller, easy-to-carry gifts.

“We’re not giving away free cappuccino makers that their handlers can’t carry and can’t ship back,” she said.

At Tastemakers, film fest VIPs can choose merchandise from 15 different companies, including Gap, Converse, Nautica, and Canadian designers such as Chip and Pepper and Annie Thompson that out-of-town stars wouldn’t normally be exposed to.

At the International Trends (IT) Lounge at the Four Seasons Hotel, in addition to free stuff such as the new LG “Chocolate” cellphone, Xbox video games and Timberland outerwear, VIPs also get the chance to autograph items for charity.

Other big-name actors didn’t even have to leave their Toronto hotel rooms to get the free stuff. The IT Lounge sent over a special package of baby clothing from South African company Earthchild for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s three children.