MOTW: Five Ways the Movie Industry Has Changed Since "The Wizard of Oz"

Photo Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)
March 5th, 2013

MOTW: Five Ways the Movie Industry Has Changed Since "The Wizard of Oz"

When the first scenes of "Oz the Great and Powerful" come on screen, they are in black and white, just like "The Wizard of Oz" a full seventy-four years before. The film changes to color after a tornado, also as homage to the original classic that inspired it. Although viewers may think that the two films are very similar, a lot has changed in filmmaking since the original came out in 1939, a fact that is underscored by the many differences between the two movies.

Special Effects

Arguably, the biggest change in films since 1939 is how much special effects technology has advanced. When "The Wizard of Oz" was originally filmed, actors were put into monkey suits to play the flying monkeys that the Wicked Witch of the West uses as her minions. For the flying scenes in the forest, they were hoisted into the air using piano wire. One day while filming, the piano wire snapped, injuring several of the actors. Today, that same scene could easily be generated by computer without the need for actors, which would eliminate the risk of injury while saving a nice bundle of money on stunt and safety preparation.


The amount of money that an actor makes for a role in a film has increased astronomically since 1939. Main star Judy Garland was given $500 per week for her efforts on the shoot, which lasted around three months. That means she was paid roughly $6,000 for the entire film, while costar Ray Bulger (the Scarecrow) earned roughly half that. Even when adjusted for inflation, in 2013, her salary would be around $100,000 for the entire film. Compare that to the cool $7 million that James Franco drew to play the title character in "Oz the Great and Powerful," and the huge difference in salaries is very apparent. Even extras who have little or no speaking parts earn way more than their 1939 counterparts. For example, the munchkins in "The Wizard of Oz" earned just $50 per week, whereas today's munchkins would pocket much more than that for just a single day.


With smaller salaries for the stars of the film, "The Wizard of Oz" had a substantially smaller overall budget than movies today. The entire shoot cost just $2,777,000, a pittance by modern standards for such an ambitious, risky film. Back in 1939, this was unheard of for a film because it was such a huge amount to spend on a single movie. To make matters worse, it only earned $3 million when it was released, barely enough to cover the cost plus marketing. Of course, in subsequent years it has made millions more with merchandise and eventual VHS, DVD and Blu-ray sales, but at the time it was not a huge success. In comparison, "Oz the Great and Powerful" had a rumored $200 million budget, not including the millions more that Disney is expected to spend on promoting the film.


The parts of the movie that were filmed in color were shot using a technology called Technicolor, which was in its infancy back in 1939. The famous white and blue checkered dress that Dorothy wore was actually pink instead of white, because the pink looked better in Technicolor. Today, many films are shot with high definition (HD) cameras, meaning color tricks like the pink dress are no longer needed. In addition, many movies are using digital film or special 3D cameras in order to earn more money at the box office by releasing the film in IMAX, 3D or both. Few films today are filmed with a black-and-white camera like the beginning and end of "The Wizard of Oz." The vast majority of films are done in color today, though a few movies like "The Artist" are not only made with black-and-white film, but also get a lot of critical acclaim and awards.

Multiple Ethnicities in Movies

In 1939, there were not a lot of nonwhite actors working steadily in Hollywood. Take a look at "The Wizard of Oz," and it is fairly obvious that just about everyone on set was white, especially the people with speaking roles. Today, producers and casting directors are quick to cast their films with a multi-ethnic cast, and have a large pool of nonwhite actors to choose from. In fact, in "Oz the Great and Powerful," the munchkins come in all races and ethnicities, making it a truly integrated film, unlike its 1939 counterpart. There are also many more female parts in the film, something that was mostly lacking outside of Dorothy in the original film. A lot of things have changed in the last seventy-four years, but the difference in ethnic makeup of film casts might just be the most significant and important of those changes.