In the corner of producer DeVon Franklin’s Hollywood office sits a shrine to superheroes made up of action figures and comic books. His favorite: a little-known fella named He-Man. Franklin’s tone grows almost reverential when he speaks of the character, whose tale of empowerment is the producer’s favorite type of “canvas,” as he puts it — He-Man “realizes he has the power … by the power of Grayskull.”
That may sound a little more like a phrase from a Bible study teacher than a former studio exec. But the 37-year-old, who was named one of the most influential Christians under 40 by Beliefnet, has his own sort of ecclesiastical mission to spread the good word. And he has a platform that would be the envy of any Jehovah’s Witness or average preacher — the silver screen — and multimillions of dollars to do it, not to mention a résumé that’s cinematically strong by any measure. Franklin was one of the execs who oversaw the Will Smith box-office hit The Pursuit of Happyness, and he worked at Columbia Pictures for 10 years, the last two as a senior vice president. Today, he has his own company, Franklin Entertainment, and has struck a deal with Sony Pictures to co-produce Miracles From Heaven, hitting theaters in Easter 2016. Though the title is anything but subtle, Franklin, who’s expert at casting stars like Greg Kinnear, Queen Latifah and Jennifer Garner, insists that, first and foremost, his films must appeal to the mainstream. “The key,” he says, his voice rising with excitement, “is it has to be entertaining!”
Entertaining and mainstream long took a backseat to the missionary message of faith-based films, dating back to early Hollywood, when, in the 1930s and ’40s, movies lived under a strict code of morality. By the ’50s and ’60s, prayer in movies had faded in favor of sex and violence. Until, that is, 2004’s The Passion of the Christ, a $600 million box-office boom that proved faith could sell: It “changed everything,” says Christian minister Ray Comfort. “Hollywood recognized an audience of God-fearing Americans.” But it also split audiences into Christian God-fearers and non-Christians, violently.
Franklin has no interest in division. He’s all about unity, and is in fact pretty good at building bridges across seemingly large divides — like his self-described “day job” (way more than 9 to 5) and his weekend gig as an occasional minister and best-selling Christian author (Produced by Faith). Take one sermon a few years ago, when he drew a parallel between the rewriting of scripts and the rewriting of one’s life by God. In a churchy cadence far from the one he uses when we talk in his office, he tells the audience: “It is impossible for a movie to make it to the screen unless it is rewritten.… When God looks at your life, I want you to know that it is impossible for you to get to the next level of your life unless you let God get behind the keyboard.”
God was infused in the hands of many who sat behind the keyboard in 2014, when the Bible was everywhere on the big screen: Son of God, Noah, Exodus: Gods and Kings and Franklin’s own Heaven Is for Real, which grossed more than $90 million domestically. But though a recent survey showed that 49 percent of Christians surveyed had a favorable impression of Hollywood and thus enjoy that form of entertainment, only a third felt Hollywood portrayed their religion fairly.
Which means Franklin has some work to do to appeal to both his religious ilk and those who wouldn’t pile in to see flicks like the religious megahit God’s Not Dead, which your average secular pop culture nerd hasn’t heard of. “It’s not easy,” to make a faith film that appeals to the mainstream, says Maria Elena de las Carreras, assistant professor of film at UCLA. It’s equally tough to satisfy the Christians, she says, citing Noah, which was marketed to religious audiences but “bombed.” It didn’t “stick with the script,” Comfort tells me.
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