Remembering Ed Spivia, Georgia’s ambassador to thriving film industry

Ed Spivia, Georgia’s tireless ambassador to Hollywood and a visionary who decades ago grasped the role film production could play in the state’s economy, died Saturday.

He was Georgia’s first film commissioner in the early 1970s and his friendship with Burt Reynolds during that period helped lure the production of films such as “Smokey and the Bandit” and “The Longest Yard” to the state.

Spivia, 78, was surrounded by family at his home on Lake Lanier when he passed away from complications brought on by Lewy body dementia, which he had lived with for several years, according to his wife, Barbara Spivia.

He grew up in Murphy, North Carolina, and came to Atlanta in 1965 to work as an announcer and radio reporter with WGST. A few years later, he took a job with the Georgia Department of Industry and Trade. It was in that role that he visited the set of "Deliverance," which was filming in Rabun County, to write a piece for Georgia Trend magazine.

During that trip to northeast Georgia, he met Burt Reynolds and forged what would become a lifelong friendship with the star. When Spivia observed the filming in person and saw all that went into a production, he had a light-bulb moment in which he understood the potential economic impact the film business could have on a community, his wife recounted. He came back to Atlanta and pitched then-Gov. Jimmy Carter on the idea of creating a state film commission to promote the state.

“Jimmy Carter said, ‘Do it,’” according to Barbara.

Spivia, who became Georgia’s first film commissioner, considered the state’s geographic diversity a major asset and thought it would appeal to producers. He started visiting Hollywood to build relationships and sell the state as a place to do business. A couple of years later, Reynolds called his friend as his film “The Longest Yard” was urgently in need of a prison where filming could begin on the story of a washed-up NFL player serving time and who is enlisted by the warden to lead a prison football team.

“He made things happen,” Barbara said of her husband. “What they wanted, they got. Burt would say if you need something done: Call Ed.”

Spivia helped secure access to the state prison in Reidsville, where the movie was shot. Over the next decade, some 200 productions were shot in Georgia. Spivia came to know the state so well that he became something of a one-man location manager/problem solver. If a director needed a covered bridge, Spivia would tell them where to go.

Ed Spivia (left) and Hollywood star Burt Reynolds remained friends in the ensuing decades after they'd met. (Family photo)

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In 1983, Spivia broke out on his own and with fellow investors to form Filmworks USA. The company leased the Lakewood Fairgrounds in south Atlanta with the plan to turn the old state fairgrounds into a movie studio. But when the operation struggled financially, the group transformed the fairgrounds into an antiques market that became known around the country. Eventually, the city of Atlanta repurchased the lease to the fairgrounds and today it operates as EUE Screen Gems Studios. Today, Spivia's antiques market operates in Cumming, where he opened a second location in 2004.

» RELATED: Burt Reynolds (1936-2018) shot 'Deliverance,' 'Sharky's Machine,' 'Smokey and the Bandit' in Georgia

But his second act in the film industry was still to come. That same year, Gov. Sonny Perdue had tapped Spivia to head up a state film advisory board. It was in that role that he and a small group of film industry advocates pushed for favorable tax incentives so Georgia could keep up with other states that were competing hard for Hollywood’s business. Over the next couple of years, the state adopted a series of incentive packages that helped lay the groundwork for today’s booming film industry.

The industry has invested in a web of studios, soundstages and equipment now firmly rooted in Georgia. Direct film spending in Georgia reached $2.7 billion last year, and about 450 projects shot in the state in the past year supported roughly 92,000 jobs.

»  RELATED: Another record-breaking year for Georgia film and TV

Wilbur Fitzgerald, an actor and attorney from Georgia, was in that group who worked with Spivia to advocate for the new incentives. He said Spivia’s political insight and his relationships at the Capitol were instrumental in getting the proposal through the General Assembly.

“Ed really was the leader of that effort,” Fitzgerald said. “He knew everybody. He understood the business better than anyone. … He was the catalyst of the film and television industry in Georgia. He’s done as much for the state as some of our best governors.”

In addition to Barbara, his wife of 17 years, Spivia is survived by two sons, Rhett and Greg; a daughter, Cole; three stepsons, Philip Beegle, Brian Beegle and Kevin Beegle; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.