Small Business Can Win at the Oscars

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CHICAGO (TheStreet) -- The Academy Awards this Sunday may be the ultimate Hollywood blockbuster. Despite the acclaim for relatively small-budget films such as The King's Speech and Black Swan, it's a celebration of the multibillion-dollar U.S. entertainment industry, played out on a global stage.

Everything about the Oscars is supersized. At a time when television audiences have gotten more and more fragmented, it remains one of the few events capable of pulling in a huge audience (last year, 42 million people watched in the U.S. alone, with hundreds of millions more tuning in overseas).

Then there's the star wattage of the nominees and presenters. The people strolling glamorously across the stage include some of the best-paid entertainers in the country, representing mini-industries in themselves. (Johnny Depp, according to a recent Vanity Fair roundup of the highest-paid celebs, earned $100 million last year).

Add to that the designer gowns and diamond jewelry, and you've got a lavish celebration that seems far removed from the average American -- and to be honest, that's part of the fun of watching. But hidden behind the scenes are success stories that don't play out on stage.

These small-business Oscar winners don't get to make acceptance speeches or see their photos in People. But they're proof that even the biggest events provide opportunities for creative, talented entrepreneurs.

Here are some awards that deserve to be celebrated on Oscar night:

Best statuette: R.S. Owens

For more than 25 years, the iconic gold Oscars have been made by this Chicago-based company, which manufactures custom awards for a variety of clients. The Oscars are produced at R.S. Owens' factory, then sent to California under tight security (in 2000, the Oscar shipment was stolen; all but three statuettes were recovered). The company also makes plaques in each nominee's name; the appropriate one is attached after the ceremony.

The 175 employees of R.S. Owens may be far removed from the glitz of Hollywood, but winners of the company's monthly award for going above and beyond in the workplace get entered in a drawing to win a free trip to the awards.

Best dress success: Elie Saab

Because the Academy Awards attract a huge female audience -- and the same target market for the ever-growing number of fashion commentary TV shows -- the night has become known in the advertising world as the "Super Bowl for women." Since the dresses worn to the Oscars attract immediate, worldwide exposure, the right dress on the right movie star can make a designer's name and boost his or her business to the next level.

For a case study in how it's done, consider Lebanese designer Elie Saab.

While he had developed a clientele of Middle Eastern royalty, he wasn't well known in the U.S. when Halle Berry wore his crimson gown to the 2002 Academy Awards. The dress' sheer top and dramatic skirt were eye-catching and fit Berry perfectly. When she won Best Actress, her dress gained immediate star status.

In the years since, Saab's business has exploded. Although his headquarters remain in Beirut, he shows his collections at Paris Fashion Week and his dresses are worn by Best Dressed List fixtures such as Angelina Jolie.

In the Oscar fashion race, being small can be an advantage: Stars who want to stand out often look to up-and-coming designers to deliver something unusual and unexpected. The competition is fierce -- and there are always stories of celebs changing their outfit at the last minute -- but the payoff can be huge.

Best spinoff: Local Oscar parties

As the awards show has developed into a major media event, more and more local businesses are using it as a marketing tie-in to lure customers on an otherwise slow Sunday. Viewing parties range from posh, big-ticket charity fundraisers to casual events at local bars.

Examples of grass-roots Oscar-party hosts include the restaurant Salu in New Orleans, where gift bags will be given out in a cross-promotion with other nearby businesses. The Village Pourhouse in New York offers free popcorn during the show, while the Rock Bottom Brewery in Chicago will serve Oscar-night specials including "True Grit-inis" (Oscar viewing parties are a great excuse to break out the bad puns).

None of these businesses will be getting a movie-star-sized payday. But they show that even the small guys can ride on the coattails of a big-time event.

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