“Look at your life as a movie,” advises Hollywood executive DeVon Franklin. “Look at it as one of the greatest stories ever being told.”
Author of the recent Howard Books release, Produced by Faith: Enjoy Real Success without Losing Your True Self, the Vice President of Production for Columbia Pictures (Sony Pictures Entertainment) is also, interestingly enough, a pastor on the weekends, travelling from Los Angeles to Oakland at least once a month to preach at Wings of Love Maranatha Ministries where he is an ordained elder.
As one of the youngest individuals in the movie-making industry to hold a VP of Production title, Franklin knew from a very young age that film was his future. The middle child of three boys and the son of a single mom, he grew up mostly fatherless as his dad had a drinking problem and was absentee for most of Franklin’s early years.
When his father died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the young age of 36, Franklin says he turned to church, television (he was a huge fan of The Cosby Show) and the movies, which quickly became his therapy and piqued his interest. How did it all work? Where did the stories come from? And who was making it all happen?
Franklin started to find out by first interning with Handprint Entertainment and then with Overbrook Entertainment (Academy Award nominee Will Smith’s production company) where he soon became James Lassiter’s second assistant. He was dedicated and a hard worker, so he expected to zoom up the career ladder to junior executive within a year or so. When that didn’t happen, Franklin questioned God’s timing and his direction along the career path.
But the waiting was definitely key, Franklin now says, as he takes a look back and details this time period of trusting God and other lessons learned in his career in Produced by Faith. I spoke with the multi-hyphenate recently and asked him more about what he wants to share from his time working in Hollywood and how other professionals—whether just starting out or already seasoned—can be encouraged by his journey in their career paths as well.
You’ve described your book as containing an “urgent message.” Why do you consider what you have to say in Produced by Faith as such?
Because of where we are in the world and what’s going on in the economy on a global scale. I also think it’s what’s going on with this younger generation. This younger generation especially is losing hope, losing the value of seeing what’s important about faith, and so I feel like this message of not compromising just using your faith to find success and what all that entails redefines success. I think it’s timely. You know I’m very concerned about kind of where the culture is going and people are not seeing the importance and the power in holding to their faith, and so I really feel like it’s a timely message and one that I just had to get out not just in a book form, but you know I’ve been going everywhere on a publicity and a marketing standpoint in order to get this message to as many people as possible, because I believe there’s a need for it and I want to help people.
Normally books about faith and career matters start with the Bible and then apply that to career. But in your case it seems to be the opposite as you’ve applied what you’ve learned in filmmaking to your faith. How did you come up with that?
You know it’s funny ‘cause a couple of years ago when I was thinking about an idea for a sermon I came up with this idea of God green-lighting our success and do we do our part in preparing. You know, faith without works is dead, but we still want God to do the work when we haven’t done our part. So he gave me this concept of green-lighting our success. And then when we went to write the book … I was like wait a minute, so I went back in my Blackberry and I found these notes. So as we started kind of developing it, it all seemed to line into place. Well why don’t we correlate/parallel what I do as an executive in the studio system and parallel that with what God does to make our faith a success? And the two just really came together seamlessly.
You’ve categorized the career story into three different acts just like a film script. What does each act stand for?
Your first act is the setup of what the story is going to be about, and you set up the issues and the challenge that the characters will face to a certain degree. And then the second act is when those issues and challenges play out, and that’s when you, traditionally in a story, find the most amount of conflict. And the third is when the conflict gets resolved and the hero gets the victory. So in anyone’s career journey, when looking at it that way, the first act is when you’re just getting started and trying to figure out what you’re supposed to do, why you’re doing it, where God is leading you and using that first act. And probably in the first act of your career you would certainly be set up in your job or career choice. And the second act is when everything starts playing out. If you’re moving up the corporate ladder, that’s when you get your challenges, that’s when your character is set, that’s when your integrity is tested. And then usually in the third act of a career, in the way that we frame it in the book, it’s more like okay once you’ve kind of gotten done with your career you’ve reached the top, and you’ve reached the pinnacle at the end of the third act. That’s retirement essentially. But obviously it’s not meant to be like a literal metaphor, but just a general idea of kind of how your career and your life would play out in three acts. And that third act is essentially the last portion of your career.
What would you say to people who feel like they’re stuck in their second act, where there’s no progress going on and they feel like they’re spinning their wheels?
Well, I would say that the second act is always the most difficult time period. In any story, in any great movie, when you look at that second act that’s when our hero faces the greatest challenge. And I would encourage them by saying do not take God’s name off your script. Let him continue to direct you into success. When you are on his purpose, when you are moving and guiding and going toward him, conflict is a necessary part of this journey. When you look at any great movie, any great character has gone through conflict. And guess what? It’s just one scene in your life. And God has the scene where you get the victory coming after it, so don’t in that moment give up. Just look at your life as a movie. Look at it as one of the greatest stories ever being told, and when you do that know that you’re not facing conflict because you’re being punished; you’re facing conflict so that it can prepare you for where God has you to go.
You also talk about using “less as more” in your career, meaning less self-promotion. But someone might say, “Wait, how am I going to get ahead if I don’t point out or highlight my accomplishments?” What do you say to that?
I think that one thing people have to remember is humility is incredibly important. When I talk about self-promotion, there’s an idea that I need to put as much time into promoting myself as I do with my job. And I’m saying absolutely not. You need to put as much time as you can into your job, become the best you can, do the best and that work is its own self-promotion. You don’t have to worry. When you’re great at what you do, it promotes itself. It propels itself. It sells itself. When you’re the best and you are great and you are focused and you’re determined and you’re persistent, those attributes and your job will speak for themselves and people will know what you are; they’ll find out about who you are. It’s so like the wrong thing to focus on in your career. Trust me. And then what happens you’ll get notoriety and you’ll get the attention and all that, and then there will be a whole other thing that you’re going to have to manage and figure out. I don’t think any of us are pursuing our career because we want publicity. And publicity is just something that comes because we’re following our passion and purpose.
In Chapter 5, we read about getting “notes from God” just like there are notes in the development of a script. What kind of notes might someone get from God in their career?
You are too angry. You have too much resentment. You’re focused too much on yourself. You’re not really as good as a colleague as you could be. I know you’re pursuing this, but I have something else for you. I know that you want to get the promotion, but this is not the path that I want you to go down. You know what? You aren’t as strong as you think you are. I want to make you stronger.
I know in my life when I look at what God has done and the notes he’s given me … one was to go into an area of the industry that I never wanted to go into. I never wanted to go to a studio. That was never something that I was pursuing. But he gave me a note that I had to listen to and if I hadn’t listened to it, I wouldn’t be here today.
You also talk about how production is about transition and not about position necessarily. What do you mean by that?
When you go into production and it’s about transition in your career, you could get a promotion. But you may have not made the transition because sometimes you can get a promotion which is just a title, but the work doesn’t change. The territory doesn’t change. And then other times you can transition in your career where you’re doing the work, you’re operating in your purpose and it’s just that the promotion hasn’t come yet. What I didn’t want to do is I didn’t want to attach production to a title, because you can go into production just by your workload increasing, by your respect increasing, by your responsibility increasing by the contribution you’re making to your company increasing, feeling more validated in your life and in your work. That is all part of the transition process and promotion can just be a validation of that that can come afterward. I got promoted to Vice President of Production and yet I didn’t feel like I was in production yet until I started making The Karate Kid. So I had the position or the title per se, but I didn’t feel like I was in production. I don’t really think that production happened for me until we really start going on Karate Kid and that movie started happening, so I don’t think people should be chasing position. You can say yes this is my goal and I want to be president of this and I want to be CEO of that. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as that’s lining up with God’s purpose for your life. I talk about pursuing purpose. We need to pursue purpose and in pursuing purpose, in doing that, God will grant us position and promotion and what not as long as what we’re pursuing is part of his purpose.
In your career and your vision, you say you want to use film to inspire and bring hope to people. Is there a specific example of a film you’ve worked on where you’ve seen that happen?
The three movies that come to mind are Jumping the Broom, The Karate Kid and The Pursuit of Happyness. I saw firsthand the impact that Pursuit of Happyness had on people all across the country and not even the country, the world. It’s one of the movies that people ask [Will Smith] the most about and was one of the reasons why we were able to do [The Karate Kid] in China, because the head of the China Film Group loved that movie and was inspired by that movie so much. But even on a more local level just seeing that movie play in front of audiences and the tears and people coming out and talking how they had moments in their lives when they were challenged and to see this story gave them hope you know to keep pursuing that dream. The movie I just finished, Jumping the Broom, that’s another film where it’s just a blessing the way that God brought that whole project together. I mean one of my best friends came up with the idea for the movie when he was unemployed years ago and people told him to give up on his dream and while he should have been giving up, he thought of this idea and had he given up on his dream I would’ve never had a movie to buy. We would’ve never had a movie to release and millions of people would have never had a movie to see. So not only does the inspiration go with the movie that people see but also inspiring is the internal, the idea that I can be in a position to help validate my friend. This is the first movie he’s ever produced. So that’s inspirational in and of itself.
What advice would you give someone who’s just graduated from college this month or is going to this summer and is just starting off on his or her career path?
The number one piece of advice is that you have to put God first and you have to pursue his will above your own. Whatever industry you’re pursuing, whatever you got your degree in you need to make sure that that is what God called you to. Please, please, please don’t negate the importance of keeping God front and center in your career and life. The second thing is take some time, relax, breathe a little bit. I know people try and scare you and tell you you’ve got to have a job … listen, life is a marathon, not a sprint. Trust me, it will come to you. Just relax and enjoy this time. You just finished a major accomplishment; don’t diminish the accomplishment by putting this pressure and these expectations that you have to be somewhere in life and then when you’re not you get disappointed by it. So enjoy the moment and don’t let anyone take that from you. You just graduated. It’s a huge accomplishment. Pat yourself on the back and relax and just enjoy it.
The third thing I would say is make sure that whatever job you take, whatever company you’re going to, pay attention to the details and details are the things that ultimately matter. It’s the small things that you do. It’s the little things that you don’t overlook that will ultimately help position you not to go as far as you would like to go in your career. If you get in and start looking at the big things and overlook the small things, your career will stutter. And the last thing I would say is you have to be focused on connecting with people. You just have to be. So much of your career and managing your career will be dependent upon how you manage people. So don’t overlook people regardless of their position. Make sure that you are connecting with people and building relationships, because those relationships will ultimately be the things that will help you find and achieve the dream that you have.
For someone like yourself who’s in the second act and is juggling so much career wise, I’m sure it’s easy to become overwhelmed. How do you find balance?
So much of it is taking one day at a time. Taking one moment at a time. You know when I think about the whole thing, it’s real easy to get overwhelmed and to say oh what am I going to do and how am I going to do it. But then I say wait a minute, God is ordering my steps, he has planned all this out for me, so let me not get ahead of him and let me take it one day at a time, one project at a time, one sermon at a time, one book at a time. And in that way it’s doable. You take it piecemeal, and one moment at a time to me is the right approach and to really rely on him to help. And another thing it’s also like right now I can run this hard because I don’t have a family. So that really helps. Once I have a family, I will certainly have to balance some things out. But being single and being in this moment, I’m trying to maximize this moment so you know part of doing this is my purpose and that energizes me, too.
Can you give a sneak peek of the next film project that you’re working on right now?
I am working on a number of projects. One of them is we just closed the deal and the film rights to the New York Times bestseller Heaven Is for Real, so we’re going to be developing that script. Going to do a remake of Sparkle, a 1970s film; it’s a musical. We’re going to do that with our Jumping the Broom team. I’m also working on Will and Jaden’s [Smith] next movie called One Thousand A.E. We’re also working a remake of Annie that Willow [Smith] will star in. One of other things I’m really excited about is we’re doing a reboot of the 1980s franchise Masters of the Universe. The He-Man franchise. Very excited about that. Should have that script very soon. I’m praying that we can start figuring out how we’re going to make it.
Now that you’ve finished Produced by Faith, do you see yourself continuing in the writing vein?
You know I wouldn’t say that. The book opportunity presented itself without ... I mean didn’t pursue this. It felt literally like it was something that God wanted me to do, and I did have something to say and I believe that there was an audience for what I had to say. If it feels like there’s another idea that God puts in me and there’s an audience for it, certainly I’ll consider it. What will the success, what role will that play in my overall purpose? I’m not sure. There are things still yet to be determined and that part of the story is still being written and I’m excited about where I am and where I am in life and all the things that are happening and just curious to see where it all leads ‘cause it certainly is every day is like a new piece of the story. So I’ll be anxious to see where it all goes.
DeVon Franklin was recently promoted to Vice President of Production for Columbia Pictures, a division of Sony Pitures Entertainment, making him one of the youngest individuals in that position in the industry. In addition to his entertainment industry pursuits, DeVon is also a Christian minister and motivational speaker. He travels from Los Angeles to Oakland at least one weekend a month to preach at Wings of Love Maranatha Ministries, where he is an ordained elder.
For more information about Produced by Faith: Enjoy Real Success without Losing Your True Self, please click here. For more information about DeVon Franklin, please visit www.devonfranklin.com.
Here's more from DeVon Franklin in a promotional video for Produced by Faith ...