Sound Technology Revolutionizes the Motion-Picture Industry Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When Hollywood’s major film studios signed an agreement with American Telephone and Telegraph to use AT&T technology to produce films with sound, the result was an explosion in the popularity of motion pictures.

Summary of Event

When Hollywood’s major studios agreed in May, 1928, to incorporate sound into their films, the decision transformed the American film industry almost overnight. Attendance at theaters doubled, new talent poured into Hollywood, and “talkies” became the rage around the world. The introduction of sound to motion pictures created America’s favorite midcentury leisure-time activity. [kw]Sound Technology Revolutionizes the Motion-Picture Industry (May 11, 1928) [kw]Motion-Picture Industry, Sound Technology Revolutionizes the (May 11, 1928)[Motion Picture Industry, Sound Technology Revolutionizes the (May 11, 1928)] Sound recording technology;motion pictures Motion pictures;sound technology [g]United States;May 11, 1928: Sound Technology Revolutionizes the Motion-Picture Industry[07020] [c]Motion pictures;May 11, 1928: Sound Technology Revolutionizes the Motion-Picture Industry[07020] [c]Science and technology;May 11, 1928: Sound Technology Revolutionizes the Motion-Picture Industry[07020] [c]Inventions;May 11, 1928: Sound Technology Revolutionizes the Motion-Picture Industry[07020] Warner, Harry Warner, Albert Warner, Sam Fox, William

Motion-picture camera surrounded by soundproofing to prevent the camera noise from being picked up by early sound recording equipment.

(Library of Congress)

The production of the first sound films required several stages of innovation. First, scientists had to develop apparatus to record and synchronize sounds and images, complete with a quality and tone that would permit the resulting product to be shown before large audiences. Moreover, companies had to learn how to market sound films to the public, knowing the inherent risk in trying to sell something many critics said would not work. Finally, the major film companies had to decide to accept the new technology and to substitute it for the standardized silent film.

Such a transformation took place between 1926 and 1930. The silent-film era ended; Hollywood switched completely to the making of talkies. In 1925, silent filmmaking stood as the standard; a mere five years later, Hollywood produced only films with sound. The speed of the transition surprised almost everyone. Within the space of half a decade, formerly perplexing technical problems were resolved, marketing and distribution strategies were reworked, soundproof studios were constructed, and fifteen thousand theaters were wired for sound. Given that Hollywood dominated the film business throughout the world, foreign film industries were forced to follow suit, and by 1935, sound films had become the world standard.

The transformation to sound films did not begin in Hollywood. It took one of the world’s largest corporations, American Telephone and Telegraph American Telephone and Telegraph;sound recording technology (AT&T), to overcome the frustrating technological problems involved. During the silent era, mammoth picture palaces used seventy-five-piece orchestras to provide live sound for silent films. Every two-hundred-seat neighborhood house had a hardworking piano player plunking out a musical accompaniment. Inventors, however, had long sought to develop a mechanical sound system to supply needed music and even dialogue. In the early years of the twentieth century, single inventors (including Thomas Alva Edison) failed to link phonograph technology to the silent film; they could not solve the problem of synchronizing sounds from a speaker with film of speaking actors.

During the 1910’s, AT&T’s scientists, working in a corporate unit that would later become known as Bell Labs, perfected an electronic sound-on-disk recording and reproducing system in order to test AT&T’s then-new long-distance telephone network. As a spin-off of this telephone research, AT&T scientists invented the first true loudspeaker and sound amplifier. Combining these inventions with film technology produced a system that could record and project clear, vibrant sounds to audiences even in huge picture palaces.

In 1922, AT&T had begun trying to sell its new sound technology. Despite AT&T’s formidable technical reputation and financial muscle, however, the barons of the American film industry, fully cognizant of the multitude of embarrassing failures of talkies a decade earlier, passed when initially offered the new AT&T equipment.

A minor Hollywood company, Warner Bros., Warner Bros. took up the challenge. The brothers Warner (led by the eldest, Harry, who was assisted by his younger brothers Albert and Sam) had come a long way from their nickelodeon days in Ohio, but their company was still tiny in comparison to giants such as Famous Players-Lasky, then Hollywood’s largest company. Warner Bros. sought a means by which to grow, and so in 1924, the brothers expanded into more expensive feature-film production, added offices for worldwide distribution, and bought a chain of picture palaces.

During this phase of corporate growth, Sam Warner learned of AT&T’s inventions. He was immediately smitten, but he somehow had to trick the head of the family, Harry, into approving a deal. Harry saw a demonstration, and soon the brothers were working up a strategy to use sound to further build up their company. The Warner brothers decided to make sound films of vaudeville acts and offer them as novelties to exhibitors along with Warner Bros. feature-length (still silent) films. The Warner sales pitch stressed that these vaudeville sound shorts could substitute for the then-omnipresent stage shows offered by picture palaces. The very first talkies thus were conceived as short recordings of the acts of top musical, comic, and variety talent.

In September, 1925, Warner Bros. set in motion its strategy of using vaudeville shorts to innovate sound films. It took a year to work out the technical problems, but by August, 1926, Warner Bros. was ready to premiere the marvel it called “Vitaphone.” Vitaphone The premiere held that August allowed audiences to see and hear operatic favorites sung on film by such stars as Metropolitan Opera tenor Giovanni Martinelli. The presentation of the silent film Don Juan (1926), with music on a sound track replacing the usual live orchestra, followed.

As Warner Bros. developed more silent feature films with orchestral music on disk and more sound vaudeville shorts, the Warner brothers quickly realized that the public preferred recordings of popular musical acts to recordings of opera stars. Al Jolson Jolson, Al and Elsie Janis, two of the biggest names in the pop music business during the 1920’s, became the first stars of Vitaphone vaudeville shorts.

Warner Bros. soon began to insert vaudeville numbers into its features, beginning with Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, Jazz Singer, The (film) which premiered in October, 1927. The enormous success of The Jazz Singer forced rival studios to take notice of the new sound technology.

During 1927 and the early part of 1928, Warner Bros. had only one competitor, the Fox Film Corporation, in the production of sound films. Fox had adapted a version of AT&T’s pioneering technology to make newsreels with sound. Like the brothers Warner, William Fox, head of the Fox Film Corporation, Fox Film Corporation did not see a future for feature-length talkies, but he reasoned that the public might prefer newsreels with sound to current silent offerings.

William Fox never made a better business decision in his career. Fox Film engineers labored to integrate sound with accepted newsreel techniques. On the final day of April, 1927, five months before the opening of The Jazz Singer, Fox Film presented its first sound newsreels. Less than a month later, Fox stumbled across the publicity coup of the decade when it tendered the only sound footage of the takeoff and triumphant return of aviator Charles A. Lindbergh. The enormous popularity of Lindbergh’s hop across the Atlantic undoubtedly contributed heavily to Fox’s success with sound newsreels. Fox newsreel cameramen soon spread to all parts of the globe in search of stories “with a voice.” Theater owners queued up to wire their houses simply to be able to show Fox Movietone newsreels. Movietone newsreels To fans of the day, Movietone newsreels offered as much an attraction as any feature-length film.

The major film companies, led by Paramount, did not want to be left behind. For more than a year, a committee of experts from Paramount, Paramount Pictures Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer[Metro Goldwyn Mayer] (MGM), First National, and United Artists United Artists met secretly to study their options. They examined AT&T’s sound film technology and drew up plans to anticipate all attendant problems. After nearly six months of haggling over terms, on May 11, 1928, at AT&T’s headquarters in Manhattan, these four major companies signed up with AT&T, and the rush to make talkies was on.


Once the necessary contracts were signed, the diffusion of sound proceeded logically. First, Paramount, MGM, and the other major studios came out with “scored features,” existing silent films with recorded music added. Theater owners immediately let go resident orchestras, freeing funds to help pay for the necessary wiring. Musicians’ unions protested, but by 1930, only a handful of theaters in the largest U.S. cities still maintained house orchestras and organists. By January, 1929, less than a year after Paramount, MGM, First National, and United Artists had signed their original contracts, the majors began to distribute “100 percent talking” features, and the silent film became a thing of the past.

The widespread adoption of sound took place within the space of two years; the major Hollywood companies had too much at stake to procrastinate. Few unanticipated difficulties arose. Within the framework of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the major studios cooperated to resolve any remaining problems as quickly as possible.

In short, the big studios continued to prosper. Smaller producers—save for pioneering Warner Bros. and Fox—could not afford the transition and either went out of business or were taken over by larger concerns. The Hollywood studios experienced a building boom, doubling studio space in less than two years. Several companies reopened studios near New York City to accommodate Broadway stage talent unwilling to trek to California. Paramount’s Long Island City complex, a simple commute across the East River, was the largest of these. The greatest construction, however, came in California, as the modern studios came to life as filmmaking centers.

Fox had adapted a version of AT&T’s pioneering technology that recorded sound on film itself. Warner’s original sound-on-disk system proved ever more cumbersome, and by 1930 sound on film became the industry standard.

Theaters owned by Hollywood companies received their sound film installations first; smaller, independently owned houses had to sign up and wait, sometimes for more than a year. The major Hollywood companies could hardly keep track of the millions they were making. Warner Bros. and Fox moved to the top of the industry, and a new major company, Radio-Keith-Orpheum Radio-Keith-Orpheum[Radio Keith Orpheum] (RKO), was formed. In a rush to compete with AT&T, the Radio Corporation of America Radio Corporation of America;sound recording technology (RCA) developed its own version of sound on film, but RCA could not convince the major Hollywood companies to use its product, the “Photophone.” To make the best of this situation, RCA founder and president David Sarnoff Sarnoff, David turned to a friend, financier Joseph P. Kennedy, Kennedy, Joseph P. the patriarch of the Kennedy political family. At the time, the elder Kennedy owned a small Hollywood studio, the Film Booking Office (FBO). During the last six months of 1928, Sarnoff and Kennedy merged RCA’s sound equipment with the FBO studio and added the theaters from the Keith-Albee-Orpheum vaudeville theater empire to create RKO.

The public’s infatuation with talkies set off the greatest rush to the box office in American history. At its peak in the months before the Great Depression, on average, every person over the age of six in the United States went to the movies once a week. Profits for the major Hollywood companies soared.

Mergers and takeovers became the order of the day. By 1930, there were only five major studios in Hollywood (Paramount, Loew’s/MGM, Warner Bros., Fox, and RKO) and three minor studios (Columbia, Universal, and United Artists). Unlike their larger cousins, the minor studios owned no theaters. The coming of sound had set in place a corporate structure that would define the studio era of the 1930’s and 1940’s—the Golden Age of Hollywood.

By controlling picture palaces in all of America’s downtowns, the major studios took in three-quarters of the average box-office take. Naturally, they granted their own theaters first-run privileges for top films and only then permitted smaller, independently owned theaters (found, by and large, outside downtown areas and in thousands of small towns) to scramble for remaining bookings, sometimes months, or even years, after films premiered. The major studios’ regulation of the distribution and exhibition of films provided them with the power base from which they dominated American filmmaking for the next three decades. Sound recording technology;motion pictures Motion pictures;sound technology

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Balio, Tino, ed. The American Film Industry: A History Anthology of Readings. Rev. ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985. Collection of essays analyzes the history and development of the American film industry, including the coming of sound. Aimed at a scholarly audience.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crafton, Donald. The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1997. Discusses all aspects of the transition from silent films to films with sound, including the public’s reaction to talking pictures and the effects of sound on the aesthetics of filmmaking. Part of a ten-volume series on the history of the film industry in the United States. Includes bibliography and indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eyman, Scott. The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926-1930. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. Comprehensive history of the period in filmmaking when silents gave way to sound. Includes photographs and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Geduld, Harry M. The Birth of the Talkies: From Edison to Jolson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975. Pioneering study details the creation of the inventions that were necessary to make talkies technologically possible. Includes substantial material on the film industry’s relations with the phonograph and radio industries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mast, Gerald, ed. The Movies in Our Midst. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. Collection of essays presents a social history of the American cinema; generally readable and lively. Includes a useful introduction by the editor and comprehensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sarris, Andrew.“You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet”: The American Talking Film—History and Memory, 1927-1949. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Comprehensive history of American cinema since The Jazz Singer by one of the most respected American writers on film. Opens with a chapter on the Hollywood studios. Features an index of films and an index of names.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walker, Alexander. The Shattered Silents: How the Talkies Came to Stay. New York: William Morrow, 1979. Survey of the history of the coming of sound to motion pictures based on a close reading of the trade paper Variety. Interesting but limited.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weis, Elisabeth, and John Belton, eds. Film Sound: Theory and Practice. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. Collection of essays discusses the place of sound in the cinema. The first two essays address the film industry’s transition to sound. Includes annotated bibliography and index.

Edison Shows the First Talking Pictures

Warner Bros. Introduces Talking Motion Pictures

The Jazz Singer Premieres as the First “Talkie”

Hollywood Enters Its Golden Age

Categories: History