The Root 100 Close-Up: DeVon Franklin

This movie executive uses faith and inspirational stories to achieve success in life and at the box office.

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Fortunately, there was a big extended family to help raise the three boys -- "My great aunt really helped my mom to raise us, and my grandmother gave a tremendous amount of support" -- and welfare checks to get by until his mother landed a job. His mom's job was at a day care center in nearby Richmond, which she eventually took over herself. (He talks ruefully about recent statements by two Republican presidential candidates, urging black people to turn away from welfare and food stamps. "When someone has not shared a particular experience, it's very easy to critique what should or shouldn't be.")

Early on, through the heartbreak of losing a father and struggling through adolescence on a modest income, Franklin became obsessed with the power of film. Movies like The Color Purple, Rocky and Back to the Future were life-changing experiences for the young schoolboy. "Even before that, I was watching The Cosby Show on television," he says, "and I remember being curious about how they made the shows, who paid the bills, how people got on that side of the business."

It became a certainty to Franklin as he approached high school graduation (from Albany High School, just north of Berkeley) that he would go to college in Los Angeles, the capital of filmmaking. He was accepted at the University of Southern California, though rejected by its School of Cinematic Arts. He was actually on his way to USC's South Los Angeles campus when his mother read him the rejection letter over the telephone.

"I was totally devastated," he says. "But when I got to the campus, I said, 'It just feels right here.' It felt like the place I was supposed to be." Franklin became not a USC film major but a business major with a minor in film.

Another fortuitous turn of events: He took a series of internships in various phases of filmmaking ("If it wasn't for interning, I wouldn't be where I am today"), ending up at Overbrook Entertainment, the management company of Will Smith and his business partner, James Lassiter. When Franklin graduated in 2000, he became Lassiter's assistant at Overbrook, then progressed quickly up the studio ladder at MGM and Columbia/Sony.

To young people interested in film careers, Franklin advises: Don't brush off those entry-level jobs, thinking you'd never be somebody's lowly assistant. "Film is an apprenticeship business," he says. "You learn by coming up through the ranks." Even when you're making the office coffee run or manning the copy machine, "you're learning more than you think you learn."

There's one troubling aspect of the film industry that Franklin can't explain: why there are so few minority faces in the studio executive suites. "I don't have an answer for that," he says. In classic Franklin fashion, though, he's trying to change the situation by ensuring that, when jobs open up, "there are quality candidates of color across the board."

Edmund Newton is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.

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