When a Car Commercial Isn't a Car Commercial: Lincoln's Play for Indie Cred

Nick Citton Lincoln Commercial - H 2013

Nick Citton Lincoln Commercial - H 2013

The motor company promotes its rides with a batch of emerging directors and artistic visions.

Wednesday, Lincoln Motor Company and Vanity Fair released a trio of short films for their "Hello, Again" program, the film-driven component of Lincoln's larger "Reimagine Project." Working with Film Independent, emerging talent had the chance to pitch shorts that would meld classic genres with modern concepts. The '70s heist film, the noir thriller, the screwball comedy -- with Lincoln and Vanity Fair's support, filmmakers were given free rein to play in Hollywood's forgotten sandbox.

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Writer-director Nick Citton jumped at the chance. Citton is no stranger to the business; before shooting his "Hello, Again" short, The Incident, he saw his screenplay That Burning Feeling move into production and completed Film Independent's writing, directing and producing labs. In a landscape where film financing could come from anywhere at any time and vanish without a moment's notice, Citton found a branded benefactor who could help him flex his muscles in the director's chair. He now has a feature in the can.

Is there room in the indie film scene for corporate sponsors? Citton thinks so.

How did you wind up pitching to the "Hello, Again" project? What did you see as the advantages of making a film under Lincoln and Vanity Fair, and what did they stand to gain?

Film Independent was the connective tissue. I've been a fellow there for a few of their programs, and they organized the system whereby we could pitch prospective ideas directly to Vanity Fair and Lincoln. When they first mentioned it, it sounded like a great opportunity to do something out of the norm. And then my co-writer/co-director, David Ariniello, approached me with an idea that sounded really interesting. It grew into the short film, The Incident. I was immediately interested by the notion of making something that was guaranteed to be seen on some level. They had a very impressive rollout plan from the get-go, and that definitely excited me.

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I think both companies have built a strong reputation of aligning themselves with art and art-makers. That having been said, it was a bold move to place such a premium on the independent film world, and those of us who are just beginning to get our own projects out there. I'm always excited about collaborating with people who are genuine film buffs, and they all were. It was great. I think this program brought something very different to the table, and hopefully encourages more partnerships like this, down the road.

You call The Incident a "reinvention of New Wave American Road Heist movies," a description that may not fly in a studio pitch. How did you get there and what mandates did Lincoln have on the picture?

The central mandate of the program was to present a reinvention of a Hollywood genre -- to modernize it, to put a spin on it, to make it your own. I guess I was being crazy niche when I said that explanation, but it's a sort of After the Sunset story. Post-heist. More than anything, it's a valentine to American New Wave movies of the '70s, which I kind of have on the brain, all day, every day. I think a lot of contemporary filmmakers do, so hopefully that kind of thinking doesn't get me kicked out of the room. There were no other rules, really, at all, other than the cars involved needed to be Lincolns of some period. But it was definitely made obvious early on that they didn't want these to be commercials. They specifically wanted narrative short films.

Director Rodrigo Garcia was brought on as advisor. What did he bring to the table for you?

Rodrigo Garcia has a wide range of experience in short-form filmmaking, so his notes were quite valuable, and came from a place of understanding how to streamline a story in seven or eight pages. We connected mostly after the shoot -- showing him cuts and whatnot.

How far did your freedom extend? I imagine if Lincoln hands you money to make a movie, they have ideas on the final product. How was the project overseen?

We didn't have a ton of conversations with people until we were cutting. The production team from Film Independent were great: Kelly Thomas, the production executive who basically managed all the budgetary needs of all three films while also being our go-to person with any issues we might have, she was the one on-set; she was the liaison with the other corporate partners. We also got a lot of help and support from Jen Kushner, who runs the programs there, and Josh Welsh [the president of Film Independent].

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Lincoln definitely had some input on the different cuts, but everybody was pretty much on the same page, and they were quite respectful of our process. It helps when it's a project designed to be this referential, and you can literally speak in terms of what people were doing in these kinds of films, and why. Everything, from framing to sound design to edits/transitions and even shot length, was designed to mirror the American New Wave. To that end, Rodrigo and Kelly and everybody at Lincoln really just helped support the vision. The biggest conversations we had were just issues of clarity and story. As in any film, you are constantly playing push-pull with how much information is necessary for the viewer, and how much you can get away with not saying. I tend to aim for not saying too much. Rodrigo was a great sounding board for those kinds of conversations. Within the original parameters of the project, David and I had a lot of freedom.

Would you work with corporate sponsorship again? On one hand, it sounds like it could lead to compromise, "selling out." On the other hand, they have money. As a filmmaker building a career, do you see it as a future?

I completely agree. I mean, this was a particularly positive experience, and I'm sure there are people with cautionary tales about this sort of thing, but indie film financing is certainly scarce, and as somebody who has hustled for corporate sponsorship in the feature world, I believe it can be a smart move. You just have to make sure you're working with the right collaborators. I do see it as a future.

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I recently finished a feature that could have only been made possible by some of the corporate partners we sought out and courted, and ultimately, [they] saved our skins in a couple situations. The alternatives are possible as well, but can be more of a long game. We raised funds for our feature on Indiegogo, as well. There was private equity involved. I've become very familiar with the grants system, and I'm a firm believer in applying for anything that is available to you. I really try to think about every opportunity, no matter how small it might seem, at the time, as building to something bigger. I'm open to everything. I just want to make films.

Where are you with your feature? Does The Incident feel like an important calling card for you?

The feature I recently wrote and directed is an independent comedy-drama called Decoration, set in rural Arkansas. It centers on two adult siblings who inherit a house from a father they never knew, after he passes away in a town on it's last legs. Again, it has real ambition to it, a freedom we enjoyed by making it entirely on our own terms, at our own pace. We certainly struggled with the resources we had, but I knew that was the nature of this particular beast. I wanted to make something far more experimental and unrestrained than my other work had shown. I am happy to say we just locked picture and are entering the sound design leg of the process as we speak -- which is another fundraising hurdle. But we've come this far, so I have every faith that we will get it done, somehow. Hopefully people will get to see it soon.

I think the film I made with David for the Hello, Again program is a great stepping stone for both of us. Additionally, it's a strong example of how a successful collaboration can work, when filmmakers and sponsors aim to accomplish something that is, at its heart, a purely artistic endeavor.