Sony Exec DeVon Franklin Talks 'Following Christ's Example' in Hollywood (Q&A)
Columbia Tristar senior vp of production DeVon Franklin has a personal connection to his latest film, Heaven is for Real. Like the characters in his movie, he is an outspoken Christian, one who travels around the country preaching about three weekends a month. In the weeks before Heaven's Easter release, he welcomed The Hollywood Reporter to his office on the Sony lot for a candid, in-depth conversation about his mission as a studio executive, his extracurricular ministry activities, and how he's able to balance it all (hint: it involves going off-the-industry-grid to observe Sabbath every week).
A lot of faith-based films are independently made, specifically for church audiences. But this is a studio movie. Does the intended audience then change?
The goal with any piece of material, and this is no exception, is to design it in such a way that there are universal themes and experiences at play. Regardless of race, ethnicity, religious belief or gender, the whole goal, especially in the films that I try to put together and push through the system, are films that can tackle that universal experience of life and at the same time find an element that can be inspirational. So with Heaven is for Real, we approached it from [the perspective of] making a movie for everybody. Because if you went into it with a very myopic point of view, you potentially limit the impact on the audience.
What’s the importance of bringing studio resources to a faith-based film?
Being a Christian in this business, it’s important to elevate films that skew faith-based because there is an audience out there that does want higher-quality films that are treated like real films. We don’t want to pander. Why not raise the bar?
Here’s the crazy thing: Go back to Michelangelo‘s time and think about the art that the church used to commission, and the quality of that art. It’s so important. Because when the quality is there, then you’re able to appeal to more people. And at the end of the day, if you touch people, you’re gonna get box office. Because when people have an experience they relate to and find something that can actually help them in their real life, you have done something that touches an audience member on such a deep level that they can’t help but tell others to go see and experience it because of what it did for them.
How important is it for the people making these films to be of faith themselves?
It’s important, when you're making any movie that has a core demographic, to understand their needs and sensitivities, whether it be making African-American films, faith-based films, horror. When you make a superhero movie, it’s very important to know what people who went out and bought the comic are responding to. What in the story is the audience responding to, and how can we organically and authentically portray that? If there isn’t that understanding, you can end up making a film that doesn’t resonate with the mainstream or the core audience because those involved didn’t take enough time to really say, "OK, what is it about this particular story?"
John Singleton recently called out black studio executives for not pushing for black input in black films. Is his point valid, and can the same be said for religious executives in developing faith-based films? What are the risks of going out on a limb?
Every movie is a risk. Every studio executive in town has to manage that risk. There is no such thing as making an un-risky movie because there’s so much money involved in the development, the production, the distribution, the marketing. So every time we’re putting a movie together, we’re always assessing the management of risk. So as a studio executive, I have to get comfortable with risk, not run from it. And that has been how I run my business: We’re gonna take risks, so we might as well swing for the fences.
Is it harder to be a Christian in Hollywood or black in Hollywood?
That’s a really hard question. With me, I don’t think you can untangle it, because I am who I am and I just own that. Certainly both come with their challenges, but at the end of the day you can’t use anything like that as an excuse not to do the work, and not to try to be great.
How did you get your start in ministry?
I started preaching at the church I grew up in [Wings of Love Maranatha Ministries], in East Oakland. My uncle, Bishop D.J. Williams, had me speak at Youth Day when I was 15, and it went really well. And they were like, "OK, you gotta preach, go into ministry." I said, "I'm not doing that! I’m going to Hollywood!" A lot of people were like, "You can’t do that! That’s Sodom and Gomorrah!" And I’m like, "Wait a minute. You’re teaching me in the Bible that faith works, but then all of a sudden you’re teaching me to live in fear." So I just said, "You know what? I’m going to go to Hollywood. I believe God is calling me to make movies, and that’s what I’m gonna do."
It wasn’t until I was an assistant working for James Lassiter when my uncle called me. I’d just graduated college [USC] and was well on my way in my career path, and he called me and said, "Hey, DeVon. I’m getting a little older, I need some help. Can you come up once a month to help me preach in Oakland?" In my mind I was like, "I don’t want to do that." I know it was my natural gift and one of my passions, but I was like, “I don’t see how preaching’s gonna fit with making movies." But because he had done so much in my life for me, it was a very hard thing to say no to, so I started going up once a month.
It just organically became a thing, and I realized the more I embraced all of who I was, the more success I had in business, because I was having confidence in what made me distinctive. There’s always the fear, will it close doors? But ultimately the more I started embracing my gift and the ministry side, it didn’t take away from my career in Hollywood, it actually added to it. Because knowing what challenges people are facing, the depression and anxiety and frustration, and then being able to come and develop projects that can address those real-life issues, really gave me a path in this business that has been incredible. But it came from embracing faith and embracing my gift. And the more that has happened, the more doors have been opened.
Doesn’t mean there’s not risk associated with everything, but to be at a company that has fully allowed me as an African-American and a Christian to embrace that, and to then use that to add value to what the company is doing, it’s been incredible. From Michael Lynton to Amy Pascal, Doug Belgrad, Hannah Minghella—they allowed this to happen. And when you look at Heaven is for Real,because I’ve been out there as a speaker, I’ve been able to go out on the road and help promote the film and talk to church leaders and host screenings and do press, so it’s a phenomenal thing that as the message has grown, it really helps the movies as well.
There’s still an idea out there for a lot of Christians that, when you look at Hollywood, is that industry for us? And I think that sharing my story has helped show that the business is sometimes different than the rap that it gets. I know so many people in this business that are about making the world better, about families, about positivity, and I think that’s a part of Hollywood that doesn’t get portrayed in the media. It’s not just run by people who are egomaniacal. It’s really run by people who want to do right and who have integrity and are committed to changing the world, essentially. That’s the Hollywood that my story tries to promote, and I’m thankful for the opportunities when I get out there and talk, because just by being who I am, people say, "Wait a minute, you’re in that environment, how are you able to do that?" And I always point to, "The environment is a little different than you think. The people that run it are a little different than you think."
Timewise, how are you able to juggle ministry?
I’ve spoken this year everywhere from Nashville to Dallas to L.A. to the Bay Area, almost three weekends out of the month. I make sure that I know what’s required of me. I know the movies that have to be made. If I’m put here to reach people, and these are the avenues that I have a proficiency in being able to do that, that’s how I do it. I know this movie’s gonna touch somebody, I know my responsibilities here; this sermon’s gonna reach somebody, I know my responsibilities there. When I own that, then it helps everything else line up, versus having all these silos. Then it would probably be near impossible. It’s embracing who I am and the value I create, and being able to sit down and talk to Amy and Michael and Doug. Everyone’s clear: “Okay, we understand who DeVon is. We get it and we appreciate it, and as long as the movies are coming, it’s all good." So I’m up early in the morning, I’m at the gym, coming into the office at 8, focused on how can we get this done.
A lot of that work ethic came from growing up in the church. As a teenager I’d open up the church with my uncle, unlock the church, sweep the church, pass out the offering plates, after church sweep up again, go downstairs, set up for dinner, direct the youth choir. A lot of that work ethic came from understanding what was required to maintain this house of worship, and that understanding of accountability was my training ground. As I transitioned into the business, it was about applying what I had learned in church to here in the industry. I gotta read the scripts, I gotta know how to put the movies together, I have to learn. The best I can do as an executive is to remain in service and to remain a student. I marvel at my colleagues, and when I see their ability to make the movies they’ve made. I’m just like, "Oh! Teach me please. I just want to get better."
One of the key things for me is observing the Sabbath. I observe Sabbath Friday night sundown to Saturday night sundown. That’s how I was raised, and I won’t take a job unless I can observe Sabbath. I didn’t realize at the time that just by being vocal about that and making that a commitment, organically that was making a statement about my faith. From Friday night sundown to Saturday night sundown, I don’t answer work emails, I don’t answer work calls, I don’t go to the movies, I’m not watching regular television. It’s really a day to unplug, recharge, spend time with family, spend time with God, and then sundown Saturday I dive back in. When I have movies that open, I never know what the gross is until Saturday night. I’ll even shut off my email so that those emails can’t come through. And so it’s one of those things, "OK, Lord, it’s in your hands, literally." Until I come back online Saturday night. If my email explodes, that means we’re doing good. If it’s only a few, it’s like, Oh, man, we didn’t get there on this one.
That’s very convicting. It does speak to trusting that if we give God that portion of our time, He blesses the rest.
Absolutely. God gave me this day. It’s telling him, "You are the director of my life. I trust that if I honor you with my performance, you will continue to bless me and take care of me." Also, it’s very hard to run seven days a week. So taking that one day off where you can just recharge has truly been one of the secrets of my success, because then I can come back into the week refreshed and in the right mindset and keep pushing.
One of my pastors once said that ministry is not an occupation, but a vocation.
Ministry as not something you put on; instead, it’s how you live. The moment you say, "I’m a Christian," with that comes an expectation. A lot of people say, "Do you preach to people in the halls?" No, I don’t preach to people in the halls, but a sermon can be in how I answer the phone. A sermon can be in how I respond to an email. A sermon can be in how I handle a situation that really upset me, that I’m justified to get angry about, but how do I handle that anger? Because the moment I say I am something, if I don’t allow my actions to support that, then I betray the integrity of the belief itself. If you could never say a word about what you believed, is that belief apparent in how you handle your work and how you handle people?
Are you ordained?
I got ordained at my church in Oakland about ten years ago. Got ordained young, yes, I did. [laughs]
Would you consider starting your own church?
I get this question a lot. Right now my church is social media. I probably have close to 200,000 followers through all social media, and every day I’m sending out a quote or an affirmation or something to keep everyone inspired and motivated. In terms of an actual church, I’m gonna go as God leads. Right now I don’t feel led to do that. I’m excited about the opportunities He’s given me in this business, so that’s really where my focus is. I feel that there’s something unique about my perspective in the marketplace that, coming from the experience that I have professionally, adds a little more relevance, maybe, or it touches people in a different way. I want to continue to keep growing as an individual, as an executive, as a speaker, and continuing to reach more people. If one day starting a physical church is what He wants me to do, I guess I’ll be obedient. But right now I don’t feel that urge to run and go set up shop like that.
Ideologically, have there been moments in the business where you had a tricky time reconciling your faith?
The good news about my experience is the projects you work on align with your tastes. When you specialize in certain material, whether it be horror to R-rated comedy, when you as an executive identify a feel for that material, that is by and large the material that you begin to pull in, and the material that the organization actually wants you to be on, because they understand that you understand this material better than anyone else. So when you look at the wide range of projects at a studio, and you look at the executives that oversee those projects, you’ll see a lot of consistency with executives’ taste and the projects that ultimately are produced and made. So in my case, it’s been great because the movies that I’m asked to work on and the movies I bring in very much are in alignment with my taste, and I don’t feel that my faith has been a barrier.
Have you encountered any resistance from either side, either nonbelievers who give you a hard time about your faith or Christians who give you a hard time for being in Hollywood?
What I have learned is either I can choose to be fearful, or I can choose to have faith that if God called me to this business, then He’s gonna make a way. When you look at the life of Christ, two of his main attributes were that He managed relationships, and He practiced service. And so I have taken that on. People believing my faith or not is not the issue. Am I managing the relationship? Am I trying to service? On many movies, I’m the junior executive to the senior executive. What are their needs? At the end of the day, how’s my work? Am I really helping the studio or the project or the filmmakers? If I’m not doing the work, and I don’t come at it from a place of service, then none of it means anything. If I’m not following the example Christ led of being of service, then what does it all matter? So I try to look at it from a very practical light. As a Christian, it’s not just about what I believe, it’s also how I act.
There are some people who may not ever get it. But I can’t be afraid and think, If I’m honest about who I am, then what if this person doesn’t want to bring me a project? And what if this door gets closed? There are some people who probably have a problem bringing me a project. There are doors that are probably closed. But I believe the right projects I get, and the right doors open.
Do you talk to others in the industry about your faith?
Yeah. Surprisingly, there are a lot of Christians in the business. And when people know that I’m vocal about my faith, it gives them more confidence to be open about their faith. It has also started more conversations than I’ve ever thought. I feel like there’s a growing community in this business in front of and behind the camera, and I think everyone’s feeling a little more comfortable just being who they are.
What about non-Christian colleagues?
I think that being black and being Christian, there are stereotypes associated with both, period. I think just trying to be the best colleague I can be and make the best films I can make has helped change maybe some preconceived notions about what it means to be Christian or African-American, but ultimately it comes down to relationships. When you build a connection with someone, that’s when you really get into the dialogue. Whether either of us ultimately comes to a place where we fundamentally believe what the other believes, just having the [trust] that neither one is gonna judge the other and [the ability to] dialogue about things that traditionally have been very difficult, just the ease in being able to do that, has been incredible. A lot of times there’s that preconceived notion of Christians being judgmental. And so I always try not to walk into a situation with judgment. And I’ve seen it work in a very positive way.
And the other thing that happens is that this is a hard business. It’s difficult. It’s tough. And what I have found is that people need hope. They need that motivation, they need that understanding. People come to me for prayer and words of encouragement and insight, and I believe that’s part of why I’m here. In addition to making great movies, it’s also to help as many people inside and outside the business as I can.