Setting: It’s a Friday afternoon in Lisle, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. Attendees at the Evangelical Press Association awards lunch fall silent as a 33-year-old Hollywood film studio executive takes the podium.
But this isn’t your typical Christian convention speaker. While sharing his earnest story about grace, faith, and the power of a transformed life, DeVon Franklin, vice president of production at Columbia Pictures, one of Hollywood’s top film studios, talks about the time he was on location filming a remake of the family-friendly movie
The Karate Kid in Beijing, China.
“It was getting late in the afternoon that Friday,” he recalled. “The sun was going down. I could have stayed on the set and completed my work, and no one [back home] would have known,” he explained. “But I would have known, and God would have known. So I told the folks I was leaving, had someone take over, and had a great Sabbath in China.” Yes, he said “Sabbath,” and yes, he identified himself as a Seventh-day Adventist Christian.
Afterward dozens of conference-goers lined up to get an autographed copy of Franklin’s book,
Produced by Faith, and laud his Christian commitment.
Setting: Mount Rubidoux Seventh-day Adventist Church in Riverside, California. Time: Sabbath worship, February 5, 2011.
“How deep is your love?” That’s the topic, and the question, that day’s preacher, Brother DeVon Franklin, as he’s called, asks the congregation, located more than an hour east of the Culver City studios the young producer inhabits during the week.
At one point in the message (http://bcove.me/u77fjr59), Franklin is moved to ask whether anyone is hungry, if they need groceries. There’s a gift card waiting for that individual. Do you need gasoline for your car? How about some clothes? Are you at the end of your tether?
Slowly, then more quickly, people come forward for help—and mostly for prayer. The day’s worship service “goes long,” ending a couple hours past the usual closing point, as parishioners experience a real sense of worship. One congregant later said, “This really impressed my teenage sons.”
It’s a sunny day in the west Baltimore, Maryland, neighborhood of Reservoir Hill. Hundreds gather for Sabbath worship at the Berea Temple Seventh-day Adventist Church, a former home of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, where Sabbath worship has taken place, continuously, for 120 years.
DeVon Franklin, whose “baby brother,” David, is associate pastor, is again the preacher that morning. A large group of youngsters from an Adventist congregation in Toronto are at the church for a special weekend.
Again Franklin takes the pulpit. And again the response is electric: dozens, then more than 100, come forward to make commitments to Christ and to discipleship.
In an industry replete with stereotypes and predictable stories—usually about those who become overnight sensations after years of struggle, then flame out quickly—the tale of DeVon Franklin stands out for a number of reasons.
First might be his age. At 33, he’s a vice president at a major film studio. Many attempt this, but few succeed that young, just 10 years out of college.
Or it might be his background: Franklin is an African-American, raised mostly by a single parent, his often-absent father dying at age 36 of a heart attack, when DeVon was only 9. Surmounting those circumstances to achieve business success might well be a motion picture of its own.
But it would certainly be due to his faith: DeVon Franklin’s Adventism is out there for the world to see. It forms the core of his presentations to non-Adventist audiences; it frames his working routine—the producer’s BlackBerry switches off at sunset on Friday and stays silent until the Sabbath ends; and it forms the heart of his 2011 book, Produced by Faith
, which ranks number 20 in the “ethics” section of Amazon.com’s business books department.
That bit about silencing the BlackBerry may seem inconsequential, but it bears explanation: In the bottom line-oriented world of Hollywood, the period from Friday afternoon to Saturday evening is when the first bits of data about the box-office performance of a new film appear. That “opening weekend” can be crucial to a production’s success, and most executives would be forgiven for clutching their mobile device as if it were a high-tech security blanket.
But even when The Karate Kid
, an audacious retooling of a 1980s classic, opened, Franklin’s BlackBerry stayed silent. It wasn’t until the sun set that Franklin learned of the film’s opening success, which ultimately led to worldwide gross revenues of more than $350 million. On the Sabbath, he asserts, numbers can work, but God doesn’t.
Stranger in a Strange Lane
Going against the grain isn’t unusual for Franklin, however.
His choice of profession—moviemaking—might raise the eyebrows of some Adventists, remembering decades-long condemnation of the industry by generations of pastors. However, the current edition of the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual
urges discernment in entertainment choices, and suggests that suitable movies may be acceptable for certain youth gatherings (p. 146). The Manual
does implore Adventists to exercise discernment in their entertainment choices.
In an interview Franklin said he understands that critics come “from a good place . . . we want the best for our children,” but argues they may neglect another perspective.
“I feel like there’s a spectrum of films that get made,” he explained. “Why not participate in helping more films that come out and help inspire and encourage people. . . . I know that our faith is stronger than we give ourselves credit for.”
The problem wasn’t the medium, but some of its messages: “Film is neutral,” he said.
However, Franklin added, it’s essential to keep one’s focus on God, and not a position. He said he constantly prays to the Lord, “I want You more than I want this industry. Tell me what You want me to do here.”
At the same time, advertising yourself as a Christian and a Seventh-day Adventist brings a special responsibility, even in a Hollywood accustomed to the offbeat when the subject is spirituality: “There are so many people you can touch just by being in this industry, and by being a good person and showing the love of Christ in everything you do. I have to be mindful of that when I walk down the halls and walk across the lot. The sermon I preach, even a hello, has to be a sermon of love. [God is] constantly reminding me of that,” he said.
How does he handle the Sabbath question? By being up front about it: “The way you start off is the way you end up,” he explained. “Before you take any job, let them know, this is what you believe, and that you are not going to compromise to take this job. Then, it’s on me, going forward, to maintain that standard. I shut down the e-mail. If there’s one Sabbath where I’m in the office, or responding to e-mails or taking work calls, it undermines the whole effort.”
At this point, his colleagues know the drill. He said: “ ‘If I need DeVon, I have to get him before Friday night sundown.’ It’s not even a problem.”
There’s even a spinoff, in that Franklin is often asked about his Sabbathkeeping: “I’ve been getting a lot of people that have been inquiring about it. It certainly has been starting a lot of conversations,” he said. With the book’s publicity, “in a lot of the interviews, it’s been a point of conversation.”
How Do You Spell Success?
You might say the book is the other major sermon DeVon Franklin has preached this year. Produced by Faith
is a message that sits between the two hard covers of a book, or as an e-book. Designed to look like a poster for a major motion picture, the book’s cover promises readers can: “Enjoy Real Success Without Losing Your True Self.” At the same time, a dummy “warning” label is given: “FAITH-MADE: This Product Contains Faith.”
Not even a casual reader would doubt Franklin’s ability to tell a story. I picked up the book one afternoon and could not stop reading, except for meals and (very little) sleep, until the next day. Using the nomenclature of Hollywood, he talks about a life’s journey as both “development,” the formative stages, and “production,” where the action happens.
“Development hell,” a term that may startle in a first-time encounter, is merely industry slang for a project that’s stuck between concept and execution. Such periods are common in many professions, and Franklin writes about the importance of faith, and faithfulness, in making one’s way through.
His tale is a gripping one: a hardscrabble childhood, supplanted with devout faith—and his fascination with the power of story to transport readers (or viewers) away from their bad circumstances.
Volunteer work at his uncle’s congregation, Wings of Love Maranatha Ministries in East Oakland, California, taught Franklin about the inner workings of ministry; he preached his first sermon there at age 16. But “film and TV were a mystery,” he writes. “Who made all this happen? Who wrote the script? Who paid the actors? I became obsessed with learning everything I could about the entertainment industry (movies in particular) and how it worked.”
That fascination led him to University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, alma mater to George Lucas, and the school where Steven Spielberg wasn’t able to gain admission. During that time, he began an internship at Will Smith’s production company. In turn, that led to a 15-year friendship that was certainly cemented with Franklin’s production roles on Smith’s film The Pursuit of Happyness
and on The Karate Kid
, which starred Smith’s son, Jaden Smith.
“I hope a book like this can be revolutionary, repackages and repurposes what we believe, and empowers [Adventist readers],” Franklin said. “We’re empowered because we have God on our side and have Jesus in our life. We’re going all the way to wherever God may lead us.”
Such empowerment, he said, comes to readers in many ways. One young Adventist woman in Chicago wrote an e-mail saying his book and its testimony about being faithful in keeping the Sabbath helped her at a crucial career crossroads.
She wrote, “You have no idea what your book did for me. Had a difficult time on the job, and I was living in [what Franklin, in the book, describes as] ‘development hell,’ I started fasting, and God started working and opening doors. What a confirmation. God is awesome!
. . . Thank you for changing my life.”
He explained that the woman, who wanted a job in radio promotion, was offered a position, but one that would have involved working on the Sabbath. She made a winning presentation on why the radio station should hire her, he said, but she was resolute in not wanting to abandon the Sabbath. The station called back, saying they’d found a way for her “to do the job on a different account, and have the Sabbath off,” he said.
Such responses make DeVon Franklin happy, but he’s not predicting what the next five years will bring. Though he expects to stay in films, Franklin says God’s leading is most important.
“God is still writing my script, still directing my movie,” he said. “I’m open to go wherever He wants me to go, and for it to look however He wants it to look. He keeps saying, ‘Trust Me.’”
He added, “Everything I do is ministry. How that will take shape, I can’t wait to see.”
Mark A. Kellner is news editor of
Adventist Review. This article was published September 15, 2011.