'What's Wrong with the Way I Talk?' The Effect of Sound Motion Pictures on Actor Careers
43 Pages Posted: 22 Jan 2020
Date Written: September 4, 2018
The development of sound motion pictures in the late 1920s provides one of history’s most evocative examples of how new technology can affect employment – film historians have long believed that the transition to sound cut short the careers of a number of silent film stars. But whether this was due to the transition itself (actor careers are unpredictable at the best of times), and if so, whether more than a small number of famous stars were affected, has not been explored systematically. In this paper, I analyze a data set of nearly 10,000 actors who played in motion pictures from 1920 through 1940, inclusive. I find that the transition period is associated with a substantial increase in career terminations, not only among major stars, but also among more minor actors. However, I also find that sound films raised hazard rates generally, so that whereas the silent era is associated with a hazard rate that is 30-to-50 percent lower than that of the transition period, the sound era it is associated with only a 10 percent lower hazard rate. This means that some of the increase in career terminations attributed to the transition process may in fact simply reflect the higher rate of exit that became the norm during the first decade of sound motion pictures.
Keywords: Technological change, employment, motion pictures, silent and sound films
JEL Classification: J6, N32, N72, O33
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation