All right, let's get the really big question out of the way: Those movie stars that DeVon Franklin associates with on a daily basis — Will and Jada and Vivica and Angela and the rest — what are they really like?
Franklin, Columbia Pictures' 33-year-old wunderkind vice president of production and a 2011 The Root 100 honoree, digs into a seemingly vast store of patience. "They're all people," he says matter-of-factly. "Everyone is different." No hot tips here about this one's insecurity or that one's problems with women. "They're different personalities, with different approaches," Franklin says in a measured tone.
This leads somehow to a little instructional exposition on relating to movie stars. Do not try to put on an act to get over, he says. "Just be yourself. They respond to that. Lots of times, people try to be something they think they need to be in order to get someone in power to take notice. Be authentic to who you are."
You could say that those are words by which Franklin lives his life.
In a business known for big, bristly egos, Franklin is generally regarded as one of the good guys — an up-from-the-ranks studio executive who isn't necessarily in it just for himself or the money and who talks unembarrassedly about his Christian faith. You're an aspiring filmmaker or a wannabe cinema idol? Franklin's there for you (if you can catch him during a lull in a very busy schedule), offering advice on "navigating the system."
And talking about God. In a tough, unsentimental culture, Franklin is usually the one who mentions that he was "blessed" in one way or another or that God meant for certain things to happen. He even observes the Sabbath ("My phone gets turned off on Friday evening").
Moviemaking is his primary focus, of course. Above all, he wants to help Columbia Pictures put more butts in more seats and make bigger profits, and he has the record to show for it. The three projects he has said he's most proud of — The Pursuit of Happyness, Karate Kid II and Jumping the Broom — have racked up a combined gross of better than $700 million. Throw in Hancock, the idiosyncratic 2008 superhero film starring Will Smith, and Franklin projects top $1.3 billion. His next big project: A film adaptation of Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent's runaway best-seller Heaven Is for Real.
That would be enough for most execs. But Franklin approaches his job — and life — with a higher purpose. He wants to make movies that are not just box office powerhouses but are also vehicles of inspiration.
"Not in a preachy way," says Franklin, who is an ordained Seventh Day Adventist pastor and preaches regularly at California churches. "It's always about the characters, the situations, the story itself. But if it helps a person see a different version of himself when he comes out of the theater, to do something he hadn't thought of before, that's worthwhile." Franklin has written a book that lays out most of this approach: Produced by Faith: Enjoy Real Success Without Losing Your True Self.
Franklin was born in Oakland, Calif., where he learned a few things about finding inspiration in tough situations. The second of three sons, he was raised mostly by his mother, Paulette. His father was off somewhere being an alcoholic, Franklin recalls, until he died when DeVon was 9.
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.