During the Great Depression, the Hollywood studios suffered like other businesses; only MGM remained relatively profitable. And only MGM had the financial, artistic, and technical resources to mount a production on the scale of the proposed film.
MGM had a practice of making one film each year that the studio's executives and personnel called their "prestige picture" — a movie that showcased the studio's ability to make films that the competing studios could not match. The Wizard of Oz was the MGM prestige picture for 1939.
The studio's most experienced talent worked on the Oz film. Gilbert Adrian, head of the costume department, designed the costumes; Jack Dawn, head of the makeup department, designed the characters' special makeup.
In their heyday, the Hollywood movie studios had reputations for shabby treatment of artistic talent like scriptwriters and songwriters. MGM, as the best and richest of the studios, has a less bad reputation than the others; while the Warner Brothers studio was compared by one songwriter to a prison, MGM was more like a garden.
It was also a business, a community, and a factory. At the time the Oz film was made, MGM employed something under 4000 people, including 600 actors, directors, producers, and writers, plus various assistants and secretaries; and 3200 craftspeople, technicians, and laborers, including:
- 500 carpenters
- 150 laborers
- 50 plasterers
- 15 plumbers
- about two dozen blacksmiths
- another dozen in the metal foundry
- one man in charge of the lions.
There were 20 art directors, half a dozen sketch artists, and 30 draftsmen.
The Wizard of Oz was shot entirely on the studio's sound stages, specifically 14, 15, 25, 26 (cornfield and apple orchard), 27 (Munchkinland), and the then-new 29 (poppy field).
MGM was a subsidiary of the New-York-based corporation Loew's Inc., which owned a large chain of motion-picture theaters. Nicholas M. Schenck, the president of Loew's Inc., was the boss of studio head Louis B. Mayer. The studios and their theaters would not be separated until government anti-trust action in 1949.