The McCann Time Capsule: A Supporting Role in the Movies
As this week’s announcement of the Oscar nominees illustrates, the big buzz tends to focus on the major feature films and actors. But other categories, like the short films, can have their own interesting behind-the-scene stories, including one in which McCann played an important supporting role.
In 1958, Ismail Merchant moved from his native India to New York to focus on his dream of becoming a filmmaker. His life in NY took him through several jobs including, as he told The Times of India two years before his death in a 2003 interview, going into advertising. “I got myself a job with McCann Erickson and raised money to make The Creation of Woman, a 14-minute film on Brahma,” he said of his first film, which cost $9,000 to make and was released in 1960. (His job at McCann, according to his biography in the book Distinguished Asian American Business Leaders, was as an account executive.)
The film about the Hindu god Brahma (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YFC_-ljnuUg), which also starred the Indian dancer Bhaskar Roy Chaudhuri in his first movie, was well-received and was nominated in 1961 for an Academy Award in the short film category. While it didn’t win, it was the launch of an incredible film career. Teaming up soon afterwards with the director James Ivory (and then frequently the novelist and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) to form Merchant Ivory Productions, the company went on to produce 44 films that earned a total of 31 Academy Award nominations. It won six Oscars for two of those films, both screenplay adaptations by Jhabvala of E. M. Forster novels: A Room with a View, which in 1985 won three (screenplay adaptation, costume, and production design), and Howards End, which in 1992 also won three (Emma Thompson for best actress, as well as screenplay adaptation and art direction).
But apart from walk-on parts, the McCann agency itself has also played a leading role in the history of the movies.
In 1920, agency co-founder Alfred Erickson became a major investor in Technicolor. Herbert Kalmus, the inventor of the technology that brought color to the movies, credited him with playing a key role after the 1929 U.S. stock market crash. In his autobiography, Mr. Technicolor, Kalmus wrote, “My personal survival through the period of the stock market crash was in part due to A.W. ‘Eric’ Erickson, who had become Chairman of the Executive Committee of Technicolor.”
Erickson also played an important role in bringing on other investors and directors, including both several of his clients and a prominent executive from another ad agency. As Kalmus wrote, “Through Erickson, I met Harrison K. McCann (this was before the formation of the McCann-Erickson advertising agency),” referring to the 1930 merger. “From the time he became a director, McCann was most active and helpful” and in turn also brought some of his business contacts into Technicolor as directors as well.