A Christian in Hollywood

Film producer DeVon Franklin talks about his Christmas movie and being a person of faith 

Sony Pictures Animation's "The Star." Photo: Franklin Entertainment

The Star is an animated Nativity story from the perspective of a donkey named Bo. Its producer, DeVon Franklin, has distinguished himself in Hollywood by being true to his Christian ideals. Best known for producing Miracles from Heaven, Franklin got his start in the movie-making industry at age 18, beginning with an internship with the management company that managed Will Smith. It was a job that may never have happened because Franklin dropped a bomb during the internship interview. 

“I observe the Sabbath from Friday night sundown to Saturday night sundown, and if taking this job requires me to work on the Sabbath, then I’m not going to take it,” writes Franklin in his new book The Hollywood Commandments: A Spiritual Guide to Secular Success (HarperOne, 2017). 

Dead silence followed his words, and Franklin feared a door was closing in his face. That moment of integrity, however, would not only open the door to the internship but to Franklin founding his production company Franklin Entertainment 20 years later. It also led to him realizing that he could make inspirational content and also be a preacher.

Franklin talked with Catholic Digest about The Star, making Christian-themed films, Hollywood, his faith, and his book.

DeVon Franklin. Photo courtesy of Franklin Entertainment

Q: What was it about The Star’s script that inspired you to produce it?

A: It’s the story of the birth of Jesus, and I thought it was a great way to re-familiarize and remind people of the reason behind the season.

Q: According to IMDB.com, The Star is the first faith-based animated film to be released by a major Hollywood studio since The Prince of Egypt. Why do you think it took this long, considering that award-winning film grossed $218.6 million worldwide?

A: I think a combination of timing and economics created such a time gap between The Prince of Egypt and The Star. This script had been in development for more than 10 years. It didn’t come together, and we put it on the shelf. Then we went back to it, and everyone said, “This feels like the right time to make this movie, but let’s do it fully animated.”

Animation is cost-intensive. Historically, the faith-based genre has been a lower-budgeted genre, so it has been difficult for movies of a higher price point to get made. The Star is a CGI [computer-generated imagery] animated movie. Because CGI technology has advanced and the cost to use it has been reduced, this has allowed us to make a beautiful film for a lesser amount than other animated films.

Sony Pictures Animation’s “The Star.” Photo courtesy of Franklin Entertainment

Q: Why will families want to see The Star?

A: The Star is powerful, funny, and entertaining. It’s a film that captures the essence of the season, and it does a good job of reminding us what Christmas is all about — the power of the birth of Jesus. The film is a new take on a familiar story. The lead character is a donkey named Bo, who is our eyes and ears of the story. He has dreams of doing something great. He sees the star, and it inspires him; he knows that there’s something better for him out there. I tested The Star, and adults were as captivated by the film as the kids were.

Q: Do you think The Star will help bring Christ back into Christmas?

A: Absolutely! I think when young people see it, they are going to appreciate where Christ fits in the season — Jesus being the genesis for the practice we have now. You’ll see in the film that we don’t pull any punches relating to that. The movie ends with the birth of Jesus, and the Wise Men show up with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. At that moment, when you see the animals together, it just underscores what this season is all about. Christmas is a time when we need to connect with one another and remember that the ultimate connection is with Christ. I think that the film does a good job showing that.

Sony Pictures Animation’s “The Star.” Photo courtesy of Franklin Entertainment

Q: How did you work your way up from intern to producer?

A: From the time I was 18 to the time I got my first producing deal, it took 6,500 days and more than 150,000 hours of preparation. I like to share that because too often we give up too soon. When you know what you’re supposed to do, the best thing you can do is not give up. I believe that God called me to Hollywood; I just had to stay patient and keep showing up every day.  

Q: Did you always know that you wanted to make faith-based films?

A: I got into the entertainment business because I wanted to make a change in the world, and I thought the entertainment industry was the way to do it. I gravitated toward material that spoke to me — and that happened to be material that was inspirational.

The first movie I worked on as an executive with Columbia Pictures was The Pursuit of Happyness, an incredibly emotional and inspirational story. The more that I worked on projects like that, the happier I was, the more energy I had, and the more passion I had. That passion has led me to where I am today — continuing to find great stories that can inspire and bring hope, that will put God on display and enrich someone’s faith. 

Sony Pictures Animation’s “The Star.” Photo courtesy of Franklin Entertainment

Q: Is it difficult to produce a Christian-themed movie in Hollywood? 

A: I can’t tell you how many people call me about doing more faith-based content. I love to talk about it because so many people in the faith community might think that it’s difficult, but in my experience, the industry has been warm and open to getting more content like this in theaters and on television.

Q: As a mother of young children, I know how difficult it is to find well-made movies with an edifying message. So many movies have indecent content and bad language. Why do you think Hollywood doesn’t cater to Christians?

AI believe that you are being catered to. There are so many people in the faith community that — even if they dislike some of the content — will still go out and buy the ticket and watch [the movie]. Hollywood is very democratic. If this is the content people are going to pay for, then this is what they’re going to keep making. 

I want to continue to elevate the quality of inspirational films like The Star, but it’s a two-way street. I can do my best getting the studios and networks to spend millions of dollars to make good content, but the audience has to support it by buying tickets. If we work hand-in-hand, you will see more [edifying] content and more options available for families of faith.

I want to continue to elevate the quality of inspirational films like The Star.

Q: You have been preaching since you were 15. Who helped ground you in your faith? 

A: My mother always took us to church when we were kids. My father passed away when I was 9 years old, and the same year he died, my uncle, Dr. D.J. Williams, started an independent church, Wings of Love Maranatha Ministries, in Oakland, California. That’s where I learned how to minister, and it’s where I gave my first sermon. As I got into Hollywood, the ministries kept calling. Instead of saying that I have to leave one for the other, I just started incorporating the two. Doing both has helped create a distinctiveness of who I am, and it has also given me more opportunities in both spheres.

Q: We on the outside think of Hollywood as a den of iniquity (correct me if I am wrong). I am wondering how your faith remains intact while working in the industry.

A: I don’t believe that inherently the temptations are greater in Hollywood. I think ambition is the leverage to temptation — in any field — because anybody who has ambition can be tempted to compromise. 

There has been such publicity around Hollywood being a den of iniquity, Sodom and Gomorrah, and the devil’s playground. These were all things I was told growing up, and I still hear it today. What happens if you have creative people who God created for Hollywood but because the church has vilified the industry, some of these people never live out their calling — and as a result never create the content that could change the world? I like to talk about this because I think that there are great filmmakers, actors, and people of faith who Hollywood desperately needs, but if we keep buying into this “beware mentality,” we may miss a generation of influencers and storytellers the world so desperately needs.

When you look at Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, God had them in Babylon, the most secular environment on the planet at that time. He didn’t take them out of Babylon. The more they honored God, the more he promoted them and gave them more influence in a secular environment. [See Daniel 3.] 

I don’t believe that inherently the temptations are greater in Hollywood.

Q: There’s a notion that one has to sell out to make it in Hollywood. Do you agree?

A: Hollywood is a place full of unique, distinctive people who are mavericks. There are people out here who go against the grain. Hollywood is a place that says, “If you are talented, yes! We’ll take you.” I’ve found that this is the same for me, even as a Christian. 

Also, I am not looking for employers to accept me. What I am looking for is, “God, what are the jobs that you have already ordained for my destiny?” The only way I am going to see that is if I am honest about what my commitments are. One of the reasons I wrote the book The Hollywood Commandments is to help people overcome that fear and to refrain from putting their self-worth into the hands of an employer. Keep it in God’s hands. 

Q:Tell me a little about The Hollywood Commandments.

A: It’s the 10 lessons I have learned from working in Hollywood for 20 years that will help anyone become the person that God created them to be. I draw on a lot of strategies from Hollywood — one of the most secular environments on the planet — to help you learn how to navigate the industry and how to become the person you want to be. I draw on experiences and anecdotes. 

One thing I talk about in the book is “your difference is your destiny.” Too often we try to sand the edges of what makes us unique instead of owning our distinctiveness. That distinctiveness is what ultimately helps a person cut through in the industry. I’m Christian; I’m in Hollywood; I’m African American. These are differences that make me distinctive. If I had been ashamed of those things or over the years tried to hide those things, I wouldn’t be talking to you now.   

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Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the December 2017 issue of Catholic Digest.

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