A moment in history led to Georgia’s billion-dollar film, TV industry

Carla and Josh_Film Exhibit.JPGGeorgia’s film industry has roots in a movie about a prison football team. In the early 1970s the producers of “The Longest Yard” were searching for a prison in which to shoot their film but needed the governor’s permission.

When then-governor Jimmy Carter heard about it, he made actor Burt Reynolds and his producers a deal they couldn’t refuse. If you build a football field inside the state prison at Reidsville and leave it there when you’re finished, you can film the movie there.

The rest, as they say, is history.

From that collaboration has grown a multi-billion-dollar industry that employs more than 92,000 people in Georgia. Appropriately enough, that industry is on display until the end of the year in “Georgia on My Screen: Jimmy Carter and the Rise of the Film Industry” at The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum.

“It was incredible foresight by President Carter to recognize what was possible,” says Joshua Montanari, Education Specialist at the Museum. “With this exhibit, we are highlight the economic benefit and jobs that moment in history created.”

The catalyst for the exhibit was a news item from the Smithsonian Institution that it had acquired props from Georgia-produced “The Walking Dead,” according to Museum Specialist Carla Ledgerwood. “It made us wonder whether anyone here was collecting Georgia-related artifacts,” she says. “That’s when we decided to mount the exhibit ourselves.”

Walking through the exhibit is like experiencing the timeline of Georgia film and television productions. There’s a tribute to “Deliverance,” which first brought Reynolds to Georgia in the early 1970s, launching a long-time friendship between the actor and President Carter.

The exhibit contains only original artifacts (no replicas) including Joe Pesci’s boots and Marisa Tomei’s witness-stand dress from “My Cousin Vinny,” Joyce Byer’s living room in “Stranger Things,” two of Daryl’s motorcycles from “The Walking Dead,” Captain America’s costume, and the Oscar won by “Driving Miss Daisy” as the best picture in 1989. There are wardrobe and props from recent blockbusters like “Black Panther” and Dr. Randolph Bell’s white jacket from “The Resident.”

Also featured are tributes to the many Georgians who worked behind the cameras as set directors, sound mixers and even specialists in prosthetics and special makeup effects, thus recognizing and honoring the thousands of Georgians in every business imaginable who have benefited from the spectacular growth of the film and television industry since Jimmy Carter opened the door.

Gathering such an impressive set of costumes, props and memorabilia wasn’t easy.

“We had to do a lot of research because we had zero sources in the industry until the Reagan Presidential Library provided our first contacts,” says Carla. “What’s more, because we had nothing to call a collection, everything in the exhibit would have to be on loan for about nine months. That’s a hard sell in the museum world.”

But sell they did, reaching out to local film offices in Georgia and practically every studio and production company working in the state. “Everyone in this very competitive industry was wonderfully accommodating,” Carla says.

Another problem was that there have been more than 1,500 film or television productions in Georgia since 1972 — far more than what could be represented in one exhibit. Entries were limited to those nominated for major awards or box-office hits, trimming the list to the more than 65 productions highlighted in the exhibit.

This extraordinary growth all began because of the interest and energy of Jimmy Carter, who believed that film profoundly influences the way we see ourselves and our country, Carla says.

“The exhibit draws deserving attention to that heritage and the economic impact of the industry on Georgia,” Carla says.

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