James Bond drove a Ford in Casino Royale—a BU alum, and Henry Ford relative, made it happen.
Ignore the celebrity names on the poster and in the film’s opening credits: the real star of the 2014 blockbuster Need for Speed isn’t Aaron Paul or Michael Keaton—it’s a souped-up, silver-and-blue Ford Mustang.
Paul, a rogue race car driver, takes the car on a wild ride from New York to California. The story unfolds as a cross-country homage to a bond that film and automobiles have shared since their advent in the early 20th century, honoring one famous car scene after another: Rebel Without a Cause’s street race, Smokey and the Bandit’s police chases. There’s even a quick glimpse of Steve McQueen speeding across the screen at a drive-in theater.
But why a Mustang? The answer can be found in a small office in Century City, a Los Angeles neighborhood packed with film studios and talent agencies. There, Alessandro Uzielli (CGS’87, COM’89) runs Ford Global Brand Entertainment, the auto company’s marketing arm in Hollywood. The group helps Ford benefit from Hollywood’s spotlight, getting actors behind the wheels of F-150s, Explorers, and Mustangs on screen, and associating the brand with celebrities off of it. Uzielli has helped Fords star in a range of films, including San Andreas, Logan Lucky, and Quantum of Solace, as well as in television shows like New Girl and Modern Family.
“I don’t think there’s a better platform to speak to a global audience than a movie,” Uzielli says. Ford’s partnership with Need for Speed, which grossed more than $200 million globally, aligned with the launch of the 2015 Mustang, the first edition of the iconic car that Ford would market and sell overseas.
The job is an unusually good fit for Uzielli, who studied film at the College of Communication and spent a decade as a producer—and who is also Henry Ford’s great-great-grandson.
La La Land
It’s a warm afternoon in LA and Uzielli is making the short drive from lunch on Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills to his office, the conversation drifting between business, movies, and cars. Today, he’s in his 2015 Mustang—he also has a 2005 Ford GT and a leased Lincoln Continental. A small metal plate riveted to the aluminum-and-leather dash (there’s a lot of leather) announces that his is #0023 of 1,964 manufactured for the car’s 50th anniversary. The engine, all 400-plus horsepower of it, rumbles, even as Uzielli winds down backstreets at 20 miles per hour. “It’s interesting how some cars stereotype a character,” he says. “Like a Prius.”
“Like Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm,” I say, remembering how the show’s neurotic lead character drove his hybrid all over Los Angeles. Yet Uzielli fits none of my Mustang-driver stereotypes. A pocket square juts from the left breast of his blazer. His brown leather shoes, belt, and tortoise rim glasses all match. His appearance is more Brooks Brothers than muscle cars.
What I hadn’t remembered was the season David spent driving a Ford Escape Hybrid. “That was my biggest coup—I got Larry David out of his Prius,” Uzielli says.
Uzielli’s interest in film goes back to childhood, when he and his father, Giancarlo, spent their weekends at the theater.
“I was always fascinated by the escapist element of movies and the ability to be lifted out of your environment or life and be transported elsewhere,” he says. “The thought of being able to tell stories like that and to transport people really captivated me.”
Uzielli took his first film class in high school and studied film theory and screenwriting at COM. “I love the solo element of [writing]—the ability to just pull something out of yourself that can be that impactful,” he says. But he admits he didn’t have the patience for the process. “I did write a screenplay at BU,” he says. “It was a scandal about coffee and Africa—it was really bad.”
After grad school at the American Film Institute, Uzielli focused on building a career as a producer. He networked, he searched for projects and funding, and he even briefly worked as Steven Seagal’s personal assistant.
Uzielli invested several years producing Bongwater, a comedy with a cast of soon-to-be stars, including Luke Wilson, Brittany Murphy, and Jack Black. But when the movie premiered at the LA Independent Film Festival in 1998 and didn’t sell immediately, the agent shopping the film for Uzielli and his coproducers abandoned the project. “That movie really showed me every side of the industry,” Uzielli says. “It was a fun movie to develop, it was a fun movie to make, I got burned.”
The film eventually sold, but the experience took a toll. “The romantic element of it and the storytelling part of it is overshadowed by the business of it,” he says.
While a breakout success eluded him, Uzielli was making connections. A coproducer on Bongwater introduced him to Steven Soderbergh, who asked for help finding a Ford Crown Victoria for his next film. Uzielli reached out to Ford, but came up empty—the company had a cumbersome and dysfunctional process in place for handling such a request.
In the opening act of Out of Sight, which premiered in 1998, George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez share a memorable ride in the roomy trunk of a Crown Vic—that Soderbergh finally had obtained himself. That experience gave Uzielli an idea.
He started talking to people at Ford, including the new CEO—his cousin Bill Ford. The company needed a presence in Los Angeles, Uzielli told them, and he was uniquely qualified to establish it.
Never say never again
Although Uzielli has helped establish Ford in Hollywood, the company wasn’t completely new to the silver screen. Uzielli has photos of Mary Pickford and Clark Gable posing with vintage Fords and says that his great-great-grandfather provided Fords to Keystone Kops movies nearly a century ago. There’s a lot more competition for screen time today, but the potential payoffs remain.
“The emotional element of storytelling in Hollywood is an incredibly effective way of reaching your audience,” Uzielli says. “I’ve felt it as an audience member myself: I remember buying a pair of Wayfarers after I saw Risky Business.”
When Uzielli opened this office in 2004, Tivo was allowing viewers to fast-forward through commercials and the internet was growing. “I think I reached out [to Ford] at a pivotal point when the whole landscape was about to change,” he says. Marketers needed new ways to get their products in front of customers.
One of Uzielli’s first calls was to the Broccoli family, stewards of the James Bond franchise. Few products enjoy as close a tie to film as Aston Martin to James Bond. But Uzielli was also aware of a deep connection between Bond and Ford. Henry Ford II, Uzielli’s grandfather, was friends with Albert R. Broccoli, the producer of the first 16 Bond films; the Ford Mustang’s first appearance on-screen came in the 1964 film Goldfinger. Uzielli remembers binging on 16mm Bond films that Broccoli had given the family.
By 2006, the newest James Bond, Daniel Craig, was steering a Ford Mondeo sedan along the coast of Nassau, Bahamas, in Casino Royale. If that seems like an oddly unglamorous car for the superspy, he steals an Aston Martin moments later.
As the entertainment distribution landscape changes, so does Uzielli’s strategy. Streaming services like Netflix are sensitive to their subscribers paying for a commercial-free experience, Uzielli says, so product placement deals have dwindled. He now spends more time developing sponsorship deals with celebrity-backed nonprofits, including the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and model Karlie Kloss’ Kode with Klossy summer camp. His office also helps Ford negotiate commercial deals with celebrities. A photo propped on Uzielli’s windowsill shows Matthew McConaughey posing with three Lincolns. “Al—thanks for the driveway—just keep livin,” the Oscar winner has scrawled across the image in silver ink.
The horse whisperer
As a filmmaker, Uzielli appreciated the limitless potential of the medium. As a marketer, he has to work within Ford’s corporate message. But even there, he sees room for creativity. “The idea of helping people move, by whatever means possible, is a really interesting story,” he says.? In 2011, Uzielli approached executives at Ford with an unusual request. He wanted to give an independent filmmaker an inside look at the project to design the 50th anniversary Mustang. Automakers are notoriously secretive about their development process, but Uzielli got approval and began recruiting a team.
Producer Glen Zipper, who had just won an Academy Award for the documentary Undefeated, was hesitant. “It sounded like someone coming in to get us to make a commercial, and that would impugn the integrity of documentary filmmakers,” Zipper says. Uzielli convinced him otherwise. “He wanted to make a proper documentary film, and that meant us telling the story with a cold eye and a warm heart.”
In the finished product, A Faster Horse, director David Gelb puts a human face on the Mustang. He introduces the car’s sleep-deprived chief engineer, Dave Pericak, and the passionate fans who form Mustang clubs around the world. We also see the new car take shape in intimate detail.
“What David does so well is he puts heart and soul into an iconic object,” Uzielli says. “I always wanted to make movies that would move people and I guess the ones that I ended up making didn’t really ever do that. A Faster Horse was the closest I ever came to making the movie I had always wanted to make.”
Back to school
Now Uzielli helps students make the kinds of films they want to make. In 2012, he began directing an annual donation to COM for a graduate thesis film fund. Each fall, Uzielli returns to campus and joins with faculty to hear student pitches for the short features they plan to develop over the next year. He offers ideas and critiques. The students refine their projects, then each film receives a grant from Uzielli’s gift. “He wanted to be involved—not just send money,” says Paul Schneider, a COM professor and chair of the film and television department. “Not many people are going to do that, fly from LA to hear students.”
Uzielli brings a pragmatic view to the projects, shaped by 20-plus years of ups and downs in Hollywood. “I’m looking for depth of character. I’m looking for a good story,” he says. “And I’m looking for someone who understands that given the confines of the budget, they’re going to be able to bring their story to life.”
He clearly relishes his involvement. “It’s incredibly rewarding to sit down in the classroom and be transported back to that time when anything is possible,” he says. “You’re not limited yet. You can tell the stories you want to tell.”
This story originally appeared in COM/365, an annual publication from the College of Communication.