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Georgia’s film industry owes its start to Ed Spivia


By Pamela A. Keene

Most people credit the film “Deliverance” as the birth of filmmaking in Georgia. While “Deliverance” was – by no means – the first film to be made in the state, it was indeed the catalyst for what has now become a $3.1 billion industry, attracting big-name stars and reputable production houses to diverse locations from the shorelines to the mountains. In fact, Georgia now has its own production companies and studios that turn out feature films, television series and commercials seen around the world.

If the truth be told, developing a film industry in Georgia started as a light-bulb moment for one man, a former radio journalist who became public relations director of the Georgia Department of Industry and Trade (now known as the Georgia Department of Economic Development). After several years in the newsroom at Atlanta’s WGST-AM in the late 1960s, Ed Spivia took a job that would change the face of Georgia. As public relations director for the GDIT, he published a magazine to promote the state. One of the stories he covered was the filming of “Deliverance” in Clayton.

“As I drove up that day from Atlanta, it occurred to me that when movie productions came here, it meant out-of-towners who would need lodging, food and otherwise make a big economic impact,” Spivia said. “When I got back to the office, I talked with Lt. Gen. Louis W. Truman (commissioner of the department) who went to then-Governor Jimmy Carter and about a year later, the Georgia Film Commission was created.”

Spivia and Carter took their show on the road to entice productions to the state, selling the milder temperatures and the diverse locations to high-profile stars like John Wayne (who had been in Columbus in 1968 to film “The Green Berets”), director Hal Needham and Burt Reynolds. Soon filmmakers were coming to the state from Los Angeles and New York, shooting such films as “The Longest Yard,” “Smokey and the Bandit” and “Roots.”

His tenure at GDIT lasted from 1972 to 1983, during which time dozens of movies, television shows and specials were shot in Georgia. Additionally, the Georgia business community blossomed with production houses, sound technicians, film photographers, equipment and prop rental firms, talent agencies and the like. Part of Spivia’s job included tourism development, which grew from a national ranking of 27th to seventh.

In 1980, he was promoted from his film commission post to serve as deputy commissioner of GDIT with expanded responsibilities. His office developed an even stronger tourism and business development reputation, creating the now-familiar Georgia Peach logo that’s still used today to market the state. Another of his projects was “The Golden Isles to the Golden Hills of Georgia” in the early 1980s, taking a wagon train across the state to schools to raise funds to re-gilt the Capitol Dome. “We raised $80,000, which at that time was a lot of money,” he said. “Plus it was the pride for the state that was created with all these school children. It was quite successful.”

Head to head with border state
His 11 years with the department saw tremendous growth in Georgia tourism, going head-to-head with Tennessee during the World’s Fair in 1982 with the advertising slogan that covered billboards up and down the route through Georgia to Tennessee – “Turn a FAIR Vacation into a great vacation.” The story goes that Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander called then-Georgia Governor George Busbee about the billboard campaign. “I remember that Gov. Busbee told me not to worry, just keep on doing what we were doing to promote Georgia tourism.”

After leaving the department in 1983, Spivia remained in the film business, negotiating a lease with the City of Atlanta for Lakewood Fairgrounds south of the city. The site had been used in numerous movies, including “Smokey and The Bandit” and “Smokey and the Bandit 2,” in which the fairground’s original wooden Greyhound roller coaster was blown up. He formed FilmWorks USA, headquartered at Lakewood, and worked with production companies as the Georgia film business waned.

Always a visionary, Spivia conceived the idea for the Lakewood Antiques Market, with upwards of a thousand dealers coming together from around the country to sell their wares. Thousands flocked to Lakewood every time the market was open and soon his business model shifted. Lakewood operated until October 2006. By that time Ed and his wife Barbara had built a successful antique business and had opened a second location – Lakewood 400 Antiques Market – near Georgia 400 in Cumming, after spending two years in Buford. “The location was perfect and it was a great move for us,” said Barbara. “Our dealers have been so loyal; it’s just amazing.” They continue to operate Lakewood 400, open on the third weekend of every month. The facility recently celebrated its 10th anniversary.

In 2006, Spivia was tapped by then-Governor Sonny Perdue to head the new Georgia Film, Video and Music Advisory Commission, which continued until 2012. During that time, the film industry saw a resurgence that’s continuing to burgeon. In 2012, Georgia played host to more than 330 productions, and 2013 is maintaining that pace with films across the state from North Georgia to the beaches.

Lake Lanier life
The couple lives on a quiet cove on Lake Lanier with their two dogs – Dusty and Trouper. They enjoy spending time with their blended family – Ed’s daughter and two sons and Barbara’s three sons, and their grandchildren – who all live nearby. Some of their children also have film connections. Barbara’s son Brian Beegle is a casting director who’s been acting since he was 9. Over the years, the couple has done some traveling as well.

You might expect Ed and Barbara’s home to be filled from top to bottom with memorabilia from Ed’s years in the film business, but he’s really pretty low-key about it. There’s a collection of framed photographs of him with various stars over the years and one wall that highlights Ed’s accomplishments and recognitions from his days with the state. The couple still stays in touch with Reynolds and Needham, who have visited them on Lake Lanier several times.

Spivia’s vision and contributions to the state’s film industry are highlighted in “The Industry Yearbook: 1973 to 2013,” recently published by Atlanta’s Oz Publishing. The forward, written by Hal Needham, speaks to Ed’s and Needham’s relationship, Spivia’s ability to make things happen when it came to films and Needham’s resounding endorsement of Georgia as an excellent production location.

Spivia is also profiled in the book, and perhaps this quote from his profile summarizes his legacy to the film industry: “I believe my legacy lies it the future, not the past. I believe that for decades to come, filmmakers and producers will recognize our state’s natural resources, extraordinary talent, and friendly policies and will continue to choose Georgia as the location for their next great films.

“All of us who have worked so hard to make sure that Georgia welcomes the film industry – at the state level, in our cities and smaller communities, in government and business – know that Georgia and the film industry will continue to be economic partners, creative collaborators and lifelong friends. That feels great!”
 

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