By and  on March 3, 2006

LOS ANGELES — With the countdown to Sunday's 78th annual Academy Awards almost complete, a consensus has emerged in the precariously high-stakes business of dressing for Oscar — the game has changed.

That is the mantra from designer liaisons, beauty executives, jewelry house publicists, stylists and others who have converged here with the goal of placing their product on a top celebrity.

"What you knew to do no longer applies," said Susan Ashbrook, founder of Film Fashion, a pioneer in bringing designers to the red carpet, who represents Lanvin, Escada, Monique Lhuillier and Chopard, among many other award-show fixtures. "There are new rules, new twists, nuances. This is probably the hardest Oscar ever."

Few would challenge that sentiment.

"This is the first year where the commercialism is out and out like never before," said Jim Haag, a veteran of the red carpet, first for almost nine years with Harry Winston and more recently as managing director of Jacob & Co. For the second year, the New York jeweler has millions of dollars of bling on display at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. "There's no one person I spoke to this year that isn't totally exasperated with the deals being made to dress people. [Some celebrities] are already off the market because they made their agreements even before this week."

Such commitments are a significant hurdle for companies. Most spend an average of $30,000 to $250,000 for the week for three-member teams. That pays for hotel rooms, entertainment, taking care of those who can help influence the choice of the brand and, in the case of the several million dollars worth of precious jewelry on view in a hotel suite, security and insurance.

Just who has slipped into bed with what brand remains to be seen. No one dares to talk. So, for many, "it's become about the paycheck," said one publicist.

"Today it's a grab-all-you-can mentality," griped another publicist.

But the disclosure during last year's awards season that Hilary Swank, Charlize Theron and other stars draped in Chopard had received compensation from the jewelry house created a palpable longing here this week for simpler times.

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