From the pages of his new book, DeVon Franklin shares how being bold about his faith while being driven and ambitious actually helped him excel in a high-profile, fast- paced, competitive industry—and you can too! Here in a recent interview, the young film executive (and yes! ordained minister) of such blockbuster hits as ‘The Pursuit of Happyness,’ ‘The Karate Kid’ and the now on DVD romantic comedy Jumping the Broom talks with J.C. Manigault about his secret to success.
How did you get started in the film industry?
DeVon: Well, I got started as an intern. In my freshman year at USC, I began interning at a management company which pretty much managed the top talent at that time and represented the likes of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, Sean “Puffy” Combs and Jennifer Lopez. Subsequently after interning for Benny Medina and James Lassiter, I went on (around my junior year in college) to intern for James Lassiter and Will Smith once they started Overbrook Entertainment. Coming into high school, I knew that I wanted to pursue film. So the whole goal was not just to get to Los Angeles and get to school, but land a great internship — because internships are usually the best way to start learning about an industry and get the foot in the door.
As I understand it, you did come up in the Church. Now how did your family deal with your decision to pursue a career in the film industry?
DeVon: (laughing) Well, initially they were like, “What do you mean? And I guess it wasn’t so much that they had an issue with the industry of itself. But what they had difficulty with initially, was that they would see me in ministry (I started preaching when I was 16) and they would say, “Well, is that really your calling? To be in entertainment? Are you denying the voice of God, by going into entertainment?” So I had to combat that by saying, “Ministry isn’t just what we do in church. Ministry hopefully is what we do everyday.” It’s been such a blessing that God has allowed me the opportunity to make everything I do a part of His ultimate purpose and that I don’t have to feel like I have to choose between one or the other. Even today, there are still some people who ask, “How can you be in Hollywood and be a Christian?” And my response is usually, Well, how can I not? I believe that our faith is strong enough to hold us wherever we go, and I believe that the God we serve is powerful enough to do so. I also believe that if we are putting God’s purpose and will first then there’s no place He won’t go and no place He won’t take us.
Many on the outside of the Hollywood community view this culture as an every man-for-himself, cutthroat place. In your 15-year career span what have you been most surprised to learn about this community?
DeVon: The most surprising thing has been that the perception hasn’t been my reality. And while I know that this perception of Hollywood does exist, in my experience I have met really wonderful people with great families, who want to do right by their fellow colleagues and want to make great movies, and I think that the book hopefully will be able to shed a light on that. What we have to remember, is that regardless of what industry you go into you are always going to find people who may not agree with you or that may challenge your faith—that even happens in the Church. So I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to be the example and to love thy neighbor as thyself. And to remember that in doing so, even in difficult environments and dealing with difficult people, we will position ourselves to impress and to make an impression upon those who may seem resistant to what we have to say.
You are a 32-year-old VP at Columbia Pictures, quite a feat, especially as an African-American. As you look back over the past 15 years what key character qualities have played a role in moving you along the professional fast track?
DeVon: I think that integrity, ambition, determination and perseverance have all played a big part. Entertainment is a difficult industry from the standpoint that there are millions of dollars on the line with pretty much every decision that you make, it’s very competitive and there are millions of people around the world who would like to get into the industry in some way, shape or fashion, so you have to be pretty determined and you have to persevere. For me, being a man of my word and being a man of integrity and not being afraid to have a voice has been key. I think that, for many, there’s sometimes a fear that you have to assimilate or go along with the flow and become whatever that flow is, but I have learned that the thing that allows you to stand apart is having a voice, to not be afraid to have a point of view and express it, but also being respectful on how to deliver that message.
One of the things that has allowed me to find some success so far is not giving up and committing to the process of success. I’m not interested in success—I’m committed to it, and I want the success that God has for me. That commitment supersedes anything else and that commitment is long term. I think that sometimes people kind of want, or are interested in something, and when you are interested in something you kind of do it but then you don’t. But when you are committed to something you say, “Oh well, I’m committed! I’m in this for the long haul!” Also being a student of the industry and continuously learning and being curious about it plays a major role. I have been blessed to have had some amazing mentors in this business and I try to soak up as much knowledge from them as possible so that I can learn more about how to do my job at a higher level.
Your book is divided into two sections: development and production. Could you explain the difference between the two and how they work together?
DeVon: Wonderful question! Every movie that you’ll see in the theater started from an idea and a script that went through development. So by and large you can’t produce a film until someone puts it through development. Normally, the development process can be quick (a couple of months) and other times it can be a year! Believe it or not, there are some movies that stay in development for 10 years. The process of development requires buying the idea, and working on the script until it’s ready for production. While production is actually the process of making the movie, essentially production and development are two sides of the same coin. In order to get the movie made you have to go through the process of working on the characters in the script.
Working on the action if it’s an action movie, and if it’s a comedy working on making it funnier. The whole thing is to make sure that the script will really touch an audience and speak to them, and once it’s ready for production, find a director and actors and all that good stuff, put the movie together and then you go! One of the things that was very helpful to me was to look at my life as a story that God is developing. There were times in my life when I was questioning, “Why is it that I’m not in production yet? Why is it that I’m not moving to that next level of my career?” And one of the things that He revealed was that there was still more development that I needed to do. Similarly to a script that I’m working on, He is working on me! And He is still working on us. And so being able to identify and segment the steps in development helped me to understand where I was in the process, and understanding where I was in the process gave me hope to continue to move forward knowing that my production time was coming. But I had to go through development just like any script that we do.
In the book you refer to Christianity as a competitive edge. Could you please elaborate?
DeVon: Oftentimes I see people put their Christianity and their faith down when they are going into the office—because they feel like they can’t be vocal about who they are and what they believe. But the thing that has allowed me to find my voice is to be open about what I believe! And not having any sort of trepidation or fear about saying yes! I’m a Christian and yes, this is what I believe, but not using that as a way to be exclusive but being inclusive with it adds a different voice to the mix. One thing that I have discovered is that in business a different point of view is always valued. And so being a Christian has been a competitive edge because it allows me to bring a different point of view to the table, it allows me to articulate the needs of a certain audience and it also allows me to speak to a demographic that Hollywood doesn’t always speak to.
Can ambition and humility truly run hand in hand in the life of a person of faith?
DeVon: Oh, absolutely! Well, let’s look at the life of Jesus. There’s no question that Jesus was ambitious. He wanted to touch the lives of as many people as possible while he was on this earth, yet, he was still humble and deflected the praise and said, “Don’t praise me, praise my Father.” So I think that ambition and humility for a Christian and one pursuing his faith should go hand in hand, but it shouldn’t be an excuse for allowing my desire to achieve in life to make excuses for the times that I’m not as humble as I should be. We all have to remember that we are always relying on God to help us get to where we are trying to go, and while the work part is the ambition, and we say, “Yeah, I’m going to work. I’m going to get in the office at 8 in the morning. I’m going to stay for 13 hours. I’m going to pursue this dream and this purpose and I’m believing in abundant life because that’s what’s promised to me.” Yet we have to remember that despite all of the achievements it is all taking place because of His power operating in me. And that’s what should keep an ambitious person humble—I know that’s what humbles me.
In the book you mentioned that many Christians come to regard the outside world as the enemy. And that by doing so they can run the risk of locking themselves in an echo chamber of ideas and beliefs just like their own. In your opinion, why is it important to stretch beyond the familiar professional and even cultural surroundings, and for those who have opted to take the leap what key ingredients are important to safeguard against compromise?
DeVon: Good question! Joseph, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were not men that God placed in the Church. Moses was working for who? For the Pharaoh! Same with Joseph and Daniel. These were men of God, who were dependent upon His power, yet were strategically placed in high-ranking positions in what we would call the world. So I think that what God is doing through His many examples in the Bible is to tell us and show us that His power operating in us is greater than the power in the world. And if we are committed to a life of service [to Him] and He can trust us, there’s no place where He won’t put us.
Today I know that if I had listened to people when I was growing up, who were saying, “Hollywood is this and Hollywood is that,” (and mind you the people who said these things never worked in Hollywood, but had an opinion on what they thought it was) it all could have had a very different outcome. So I had to go try for myself, and trust that if I’m following God that He is leading me there, and that He is going to provide a way to find the success that He wants me to have and help me sustain it so much so that it doesn’t compromise what I believe.
Now on the piece about compromise, we have to be clear on our motivations. I think is very easy to compromise when you are not clear on what is motivating you. In the second chapter of the book I talk about what is your ‘big idea.’ Every great movie starts with a big idea. And if you don’t know the big idea of your story, then how can you write it. So it’s the same thing with your career, if you don’t know why you are doing what you are doing (if you don’t know why you want to be a lawyer, a doctor, or an actor), then when you are faced with difficult decisions—because you are not aware of what is motivating you and where God is in the process—it will be very easy to compromise. So we should always start with: what am I doing, why am I doing it, and is this what God wants me to do.
In your book you speak about ‘development hell’. Can you explain the term, and maybe explain how we can get past it or avoid it completely?
DeVon: ‘Development hell’ is a Hollywood term used to describe projects that languish a very long time in development. And here’s the thing (laughing), I can’t give you any recommendations on how to avoid it, because I do believe that every step of development is necessary, and every step in development will build [in us] the character required to sustain production and to sustain a long life career. Now, while some of us will never meet development hell, because it’s just not part of what God will send us through, others will stay there very long (it all depends ultimately on where He wants us to go and what He needs to build in us in order to get there). Right now, there are a number of scripts that I’m developing that people will say are in development hell. We have worked on these scripts and for years tried different writers and approaches and for whatever reason we can’t seem to crack the idea, and with each draft it feels like the script gets worse.
In development hell in life you literally feel like everything you worked towards, all your dreams and all the things that you have put so much time into are not going to happen. It’s excruciating, it’s painful, it’s depressing, it’s frustrating, and it can look like working at a particular job for years beyond when you thought you would be there and then learning that they are going to downsize the company. Or like wow! I didn’t get a chance to finish my education but now how am I going to go to the next level? I need to go back to school, how is that going to work? It’s basically that moment in your career when you feel stagnant, you feel pressure, you feel the frustration and it all feels like it’s going to be consumed literally by this thing called development hell. But the thing to remember while going through development hell is that it is just one scene in the story of your life that God is telling.
I love to reference the scene in ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’ where Chris Gardner and his son are in the public bathroom and there was nowhere else for them to sleep. The challenge there was that at that moment he could have given up, not realizing that had he just continued to pursue, he was going to get the job. Now he could have given it all up in the bathroom! And many of us in development hell are tempted to give up on our story right there. We are tempted to write God out of the script the moment it gets too difficult, and what I say is that you have to remember that development hell is just one scene.
The other thing that I touch on in this chapter is the idea of turnaround. In Hollywood sometimes when a script has stayed too long in development hell we end up putting it in ‘turnaround’, which is when we allow any other studio to buy the script. Sometimes we fear that the people we work for don’t see our value and that they might put us in turnaround. And I say don’t worry about it. Some of the biggest movies and biggest franchises in the history of the movie business were scripts that people gave up on. Twilight, Forrest Gump, Slumdog Millionaire are just some of the scripts that people gave up on but went on to become some of the biggest box office hits, making hundreds of millions of dollars around the world. So in development hell remember that God still values you and he sees greatness in you—so don’t give up on your purpose and greatness just because you are going through a tough time.
The book ends with a chapter entitled “You The Sequel,” in which you explore the idea of the second act. How can this stage of ‘Production’ become a powerful force as an individual embarks on personal and professional development?
DeVon: Because what we always have to remember is that what God wants to do in our lives is not a momentary thing but an eternal thing. As the Bible says, there are seasons. Some career seasons last 20 or 30 years, and while other seasons may only last 5 years, so we always have to be ready to go on to that next journey and that next chapter of life, whatever it may or may not be, without being afraid of it. When in the business we decide that we are going to make a sequel, it is because there was something very successful about the first undertaking, and so when God has a sequel planned for us, He has planned it because there’s something else that He wants us to do. So I always go into sequels from a position of faith and joy that says, “Wow! This is what you did in the first episode of my story. I can’t wait to see what you are going to do in the second episode!”
What’s next for DeVon Franklin?
DeVon: Ah man, I don’t know! (both laughing) What’s next, is to get this message to the world! Which I’m so passionate about—as if you couldn’t tell! Because I just believe there’s a need for it, and I want to get it to every person who has a need for this. Outside of that, I have a long way to go in my career at the studio and I want to continue to grow, progress and develop and oversee movies that people are affected by and that work at the box office. So I hope what’s next is continued success and to continue to walk in my purpose because you know how we sometimes say to God, “Lord, I want it to look like this,” and when it doesn’t look like that we get all frustrated. So my hope is that I can say, “God have your will, have your way,” and whatever is next I will be comfortable with because it was ordained by Him.