"I collect mostly portraits. People's stories are fascinating to me. The ability to capture a moment in time for somebody and be able to either create the story in your head or hear the story, from the artist, of what happened in the image itself, is fascinating."
Alessandro Uzielli is the head of Ford Motor Co.'s Global Brand Entertainment division in Los Angeles, California. As the great-great-grandson of Henry Ford, Uzielli joined his family’s business after ten years of experience in the film industry. Uzielli uses his expertise in filmmaking to master product placement of Ford vehicles. He is responsible for James Bond driving a Ford car in both Casino Royale and in Quantum of Solace. Uzielli’s appreciation for the arts extends beyond film; he is an art collector and supporter of the Getty, LACMA, and Hammer Museum.
In this interview, Alessandro Uzielli shares why he left a career in filmmaking to work for his family's company, how he revolutionized the practice of product placement, and the current marketing challenges he is faced with.
TGL: How was your childhood?
AU: I grew up in New York City and became obsessed with the movies at the early age of probably 11 or 12. Even though I lived a happy childhood, I used the movies as a form of escape. A medium that allowed you to be transported into another time and place fascinated me. So, in my early life, and up through college, I focused on studying the art of filmmaking and thought that it was going to be my life’s work.
TGL: Did you study filmmaking in college?
AU: I went to Boston University’s College of Communications to study film making as an undergraduate and then continued on to The American Film Institute for graduate school. I arrived at Boston University expecting to take production classes, but when I got there I realized that I wasn't ready to actually start producing movies. I ended up taking film theory classes instead. I studied the work of Fellini, Joseph Losey, Scorsese, Coppola, and all the great European avant garde filmmakers. And then I applied to graduate school to have a better understanding about what it actually meant to get behind the camera. I only applied to AFI and, thankfully, I got in. It was a terrific experience, and I created a wealth of relationships and contacts with contemporaries who were all starting out in the film business.
At the time, AFI was a one year program. At the end of that first year you had to be invited back in order to get your Master's in Fine Arts. At the end of my first year, I spoke to a mentor of mine, Steve Ross, who was head of Warner Communications. I had been invited back to AFI to complete the Master's program, so I asked him if he thought I should go back or if I should get a job. He told me not to go back to school. He said, "There are plenty of young people your age that never went to film school that are out there, getting a head start in the industry, while you're continuing your education." He helped me get a job, which ultimately fell through at the last moment, so I ended up back at the American Film Institute, getting my MFA.
TGL: What did you do after you got your Masters from AFI?
AU: I set off into the film business, which I did for 10 years. I produced a handful of forgettable films. I met some terrific people. I met some not so terrific people. When I got married, I realized that I was at a time in my life when I wanted to make some significant decisions about the future. I didn't think that the film business was going to keep me safe. I felt like I didn't pay my dues enough to really understand it. I'd been taken advantage of by certain people, and I didn't really want to spend the rest of my life in that business. It was a real disappointment. Since childhood I had thought that this was what I wanted to do, but as I approached my 30s, I started thinking that maybe it wasn’t everything that I thought it was.
TGL: What did you decide to do?
AU: While I was producing, I’d had this situation with Steven Soderbergh, while he was making Out of Sight with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. Because he knew about my familial connection to Ford Motor Company, he came to me about getting cars for his movie. I'd never thought about how that process works. I decided it would be an interesting exercise for me to go through. Ford did not have a simple process in place. It involved multiple executives in the company, multiple agencies globally, and there was no real defined process for a filmmaker to come to Ford in order to place their products.
It set me on a new trajectory: with 10 years of experience in the film business and a family legacy, as well as an innate interest in cars, I began a conversation with my cousin, Bill Ford, who was CEO of Ford at the time. I started collaborating with some marketing executives at the company in Detroit, and we formulated a business plan to open the office which I still run to this day. It took about two years to put together, because my family connection made things a little more difficult, but there's no question that it also made it possible. So, in 2004, I was fortunate enough to bring all these assorted elements of my life together and create an internal office for Ford, which is now in its 16th year. My team and I were able to create a unique, streamlined, effective, and fiscally prudent process by which Ford could interact and partner with Hollywood.
TGL: What exactly is the role of your office?
AU: What started in 2004 as primarily a Product Placement Office for Ford and its brands, is now a diverse multi-faceted operation where we negotiate talent, produce content, and look for unique ways to partner with the entertainment community. We hope to promote, not only Ford and Lincoln products, but the company’s priorities as a global business and its intent on making the world a better place for its employees and customers. At this moment in time, it's interesting for both industries - media and automotive - because we're constantly evolving and transforming as the world continues to change along with the consumer. Partnering with Hollywood has always been exciting, but right now we're at a pivotal moment.
TGL: Was product placement in movies a common practice before you opened your office?
AU: Henry Ford supplied Model T’s to the Keystone Cop films in the early 1900s, but when Ford opened this office in 2004, it was the first internal office for an American car company of its kind in Hollywood. At the time, Ford had eight brands, both domestic and international, including Jaguar, Land Rover, Aston Martin, and Volvo. There was now a single point of contact whereby the entertainment industry could easily reach out to Ford, or our office could facilitate a partnership with Hollywood on behalf of Ford. My 10 years in the film business gave me the understanding of process and a healthy rolodex of contacts in the business.
TGL: How did the process work?
AU: If a brand launched a new vehicle, and we realized that it lined up nicely with a certain entertainment property, we would be proactive about reaching out to a studio or network. The digital business was in its infancy. Because of my relationships, I was able to reach out directly to the creative teams as opposed to the ad salespeople. That approach isn’t so easy anymore.
TGL: Would Ford in James Bond be an example of this?
AU: Yes. When the Ford Mustang came out in 1964, the first time it was ever seen on film was in Goldfinger. That relationship was forged between my grandfather Henry Ford II and his friend Cubby Broccoli, who was the producer of the James Bond films. When I opened this office, that was a relationship that already existed. In fact, Die Another Day preceded me. It was executed well, but at the end of the day, there was uncertainty about how the relationship was going to evolve. There was a pause between Die Another Day and Casino Royale. I reconnected with Barbara Broccoli, and started exploring the idea of reinvigorating the relationship. It was a dream come true to work on a franchise like James Bond.
TGL: What was it like working with the James Bond franchise on Casino Royale?
AU: Being able to work on it was tremendous. The dilemma was, you have Aston Martin, which is the ultimate Bond vehicle, but how do you get the other Ford brands involved? At the time, we were launching a car in Europe called the Mondeo. We had a long and strategic conversation with the creative team on Bond, about putting the Aston Martin back, but also figuring out a way to promote the Mondeo. To the Bond team’s credit, they crafted a scene in the Bahamas, where Bond gets into a Mondeo, and has a beautiful drive along this ocean road. We lifted that scene from the film and used it as a platform to launch the Mondeo throughout Europe. It was a huge success.
We went on to partner on the next film, Quantum of Solace, but at that time, we were starting to sell off the European brands including Aston Martin. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to work with the Bond team since, but it was a wonderful relationship.
TGL: What has been another important project to you?
AU: The most interesting one for me, that brought all the elements of my life together, was producing the documentary, A Faster Horse, about the Ford Mustang in 2015, the 50th anniversary of the car. As a marketing organization we were challenged with figuring out the most unique way to market this important product. What would be an initiative that would reach people we don’t normally reach and on platforms where we normally don’t turn up. We came up with the idea to go to an established filmmaker and let him tell the history of Mustang, as opposed to us as telling the story ourselves. So many people have a Mustang story, it’s touched so many people's lives. How do you tell a great story, and not just a great car story? I went to my friend, Nigel Sinclair, a producer known for making documentaries about Bob Dylan and George Harrison. Nigel found a young director, David Gelb, who had just made Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which was a documentary about a sushi chef in Japan. I watched the movie and it was beautiful. It was lyrical. It was a story about a family business, a story about manufacturing a product and making it accessible to a lot of people. It made a lot of sense. Gelb had little to no previous experience with Mustang. He was definitely not a car guy, so he would definitely bring a fresh perspective to the story. He went to Detroit and immersed himself in the business and into the Mustang. Ford’s involvement was minimal. Because of my passion for film, watching this story come together with all these different elements that had fascinated me throughout my life was a gift. We premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and ultimately sold it to Netflix.
The film definitely had its fans and its foes within the ranks at Ford. There were executives who thought it should be more car centric, it should be more of a traditional marketing effort. The executives who liked it, saw how it introduced Mustang to a whole new audience - not just car lovers, but lovers of great stories and great characters. I still watch it and it's something I'm really proud of.
TGL: What new marketing challenges are you observing?
AU: What’s been a challenge for us - and I always use the word challenge in a positive way - is that audiences have fragmented from broadcast television and theatrical exhibition to places like Netflix and Hulu and Amazon and beyond. We are challenged as an advertiser to figure out how to reach that audience, because those platforms are not using advertising in a traditional way. What's good about where I sit is that we are not a traditional advertising office. We are working on how to talk to those platforms in a way where they don't feel threatened by us coming in and cramming a product down their audience's throat. What I try to promote about myself and the people I work with, is that we've always had a foot on both sides of the line. We obviously have to sell our product, but on the other hand, we know what it means to tell a story. We know what it means to not overstep any of those lines whereby the audience thinks they're being sold to.
We’re still figuring out a way to speak to these OTT platforms effectively and creatively. Given my background, I'm hoping that those discussions will evolve and that we can forge these great partnerships with the future of media, which, as an audience member, is incredibly exciting. And as an advertiser, it's a vast exciting landscape that's only growing larger.
TGL: You also own a restaurant and your father owned a restaurant. What is your relationship to the food industry?
AU: Going back to the beginning of our conversation, I talked about the ability to watch a movie and be transported. The restaurant I bought, La Dolce Vita, is the ultimate escape. It's essentially a film set, built in the 1960s to look like a New York Italian restaurant. When I first moved to Los Angeles and I went there, I was completely taken by it. There are no windows in the place, so you walk in and all of a sudden you're back in the glory days of Hollywood. When it opened in 1966, it was one of Frank Sinatra's favorite restaurants, and I'm a huge Frank Sinatra fan. While I was attracted to the nostalgia of the place, you also have to be completely contemporary when it comes to your service, your food, and cocktails. I don't think I'll ever own another restaurant. This place checks all the boxes for me. It's been challenging, there's no question. I don't consider myself a restauranteur, and I saw what it did to my father. He had an incredible run and was hugely successful for a period of time, and then it all went south. I swore off the business, but then I found La Dolce Vita, or should I say, it found me, and when I heard it was closing, I didn’t want to see it go away. Buying it was incredibly spontaneous, but I've enjoyed every minute of it. There are challenges every day. I have a wonderful team that helps me operate it. It is a little bit like producing a movie.
TGL: You’re also an art collector, is it part of your Ford brand identity or is it personal?
AU: It’s personal, it goes back to my obsession with storytelling and filmmaking and escapism. My collecting started in the early 90s, when I’d just come out here and started getting into filmmaking and producing. I collect mostly portraits. People's stories are fascinating to me. The ability to capture a moment in time for somebody and be able to either create the story in your head or hear the story, from the artist, of what happened in the image itself, is fascinating. If you look around my assorted locales, wall space to me is almost as much of a commodity as the art itself. Because I've been collecting for almost 30 years now, whether it's the restaurant, my home or this office, every inch of it is covered with my collection.
The Los Angeles art community has been very accommodating and welcoming. I consider a lot of the people in that community to be my good friends. I've been involved with the Getty, LACMA, the Hammer and I really like the people I’ve gotten to know at those institutions.
TGL: How has COVID-19 affected the assorted parts of your life?
AU: As a member of the Ford family, it has been a great sense of pride to watch our industry pivot and start making ventilators and PPE for front line workers. La Dolce Vita is currently closed and its future is uncertain. I had an extended family there and it’s been heartbreaking not to be with them during these difficult days.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?
AU: I met Frank Sinatra when I was in my teens, but I never really got to talk to him, so to have the ability to sit down with him would be great. When I was in high school, I got to spend a weekend with Steve Spielberg. I was at a friend's house and he was there, and we sat by the pool and talked about movies all day. I never reconnected with him, but that was a moment in time that I'll never forget. I don't know how I could top that. I’m incredibly fortunate that I've gotten to meet some of the people in my life that I consider my heroes, but the one person that I would love to have met was Edsel Ford, who is my great grandfather. He died early in his life from stomach cancer. He was a patron of the arts: he had a love of everything creative. He was a photographer. Edsel was responsible for Lincoln and a lot of its early designs.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
AU: Be happy in what you're doing – I realize that’s easier said than done. I’m so fortunate that I look forward to work every day. If you’re not happy, don't be afraid to pivot. If you're doing something that you thought you always wanted to do, and it doesn't end up working out, don't stick with it just because you thought it was meant to be. Be open to new things. I never thought I would be working for Ford Motor Company. I never thought that would be part of my life. I always thought it was going to be the movies. If I hadn't allowed myself the ability to change 16 years ago, I don't think I'd be nearly as happy as I am today. If we lock ourselves into something and stay so rigid, we don't have the ability to experience that happiness.