Oscar Preview: Despite Their Budgets, Parties Will Feel as Rich as Ever

A giant version of a golden Oscar statuette stood sentry at last year's Governors Ball, where 1,500 guests came for dinner at the Hollywood & Highland Center's Grand Ballroom following the awards. This year's ball will abandon the sit-down dinner format for a mostly tray-passed menu of more than 50 dishes from Wolfgang Puck.

Photo: Line 8 Photography

This Oscar season in Los Angeles, you can expect a party landscape as opulent as ever. But while showiness is back in fashion, it doesn't necessarily come with a corresponding bump in budget.

The Elton John AIDS Foundation viewing fund-raiser, consistently one of the biggest events on Oscar night, will move this year to a larger venue that will accommodate 890 dinner guests instead of last year’s 740—and will have a chance to draw from that many more wallets for the cause. Apart from, say, the additional rental costs incurred for a larger guest count, the budget for the event will not increase.

“There's definitely a difference in [the right] direction over the last several years in terms of the economy, [but] because we're so strictly audited internally, our budget doesn't change every year,” said Virginia Fout of V Productions, the producer of the event now in its 20th year. “Things are coming back and people are feeling more comfortable supporting [projects like these], and spending money. Perception was a big issue, and now [it’s OK to look rich again] with caution.”

Essence will throw its annual A-list “Black Women in Hollywood” luncheon at the Beverly Hills Hotel this year with its standard luxe look and feel. But the budget is actually smaller than it was when the magazine launched the event during the recession. “We did scale back last year, and we are still at a more scaled-back budget,” said the magazine’s New York-based event marketing director, Candace Purdie Montgomery. “But on my watch, you will never feel that the experience is compromised based on the budget. Just as we always have been creative about how we spend our money, we will apply that strategy and philosophy in terms of the event experience this year.”

And take the Oscar night Governors Ball. While the academy declined a request for details about the event’s budget through its production firm Sequoia Productions, this year’s party will have a radically redefined format intended to infuse added energy and sociability into the ballroom. The academy will abandon the traditional sit-down dinner in favor of a layered, tray-passed catering experience offering more than 50 dishes from Wolfgang Puck. More dishes means more vehicles and more utensils. And the revamped format will also make use of more than 500 custom furniture pieces from Lux Lounge Event Furniture Rentals, instead of more traditional, stackable rentals.

“It's a totally custom, couture look. Furniture is expensive. But don't think I spent an extra penny,” said Sequoia's Cheryl Cecchetto, who credited strong vendor partners with being able to pull it off on budget.

In February 2009, the same party went for a zen-like look marked by restraint in deference to the state of the economy. In those days—consider what is often called the AIG effect—event organizers were especially mindful of public perception, but this year’s approach indicates a new era.

Similarly, Vanity Fair cancelled its party in 2008, nominally in solidarity with the striking writers of the Writers Guild of America; in fact it appeared at that time that the long strike was finally drawing to a close, but the economic recession was just beginning to take hold. A Vanity Fair publicist said the brand “never talks numbers,” but expect a look this year in keeping with the party’s reputation as Oscar night’s biggest.

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