DeVon Franklin talks 20 years of success, being Will Smith’s intern, and movies

DeVon Franklin talks 20 years of success, being Will Smith's intern, and movies
DeVon Franklin, behind the scenes at BET Genius Talks, sponsored by AT&T (Photo credit: Porsha Monique for Steed Media)

DeVon Franklin has been in the entertainment industry for over 20 years. He’s been mentored by the best of the best, including Will Smith, with whom he interned at age 18. He has served as one of the few African American executive vice presidents in Hollywood with Columbia Pictures, and currently serves as president and CEO of his own production company, Franklin Entertainment, where he oversees the creation of major motion films, including his most recent film, Miracles from Heaven. He’s developed and hosted shows with Oprah, was a featured Ted Talks speaker, and is a NY Times best-selling author of his popular book Produced By Faith and The Wait,  that he co-wrote with his wife, actress Meagan Good. In addition to all of that, he also serves as a preacher and a motivational speaker.

Rolling out had the honor of going behind the scenes with Franklin at one of the BET Genius Talks sessions to get an exclusive interview during the BET weekend in Los Angeles. The articulate Franklin discussed overcoming his biggest challenge, leading by serving, and making movies. Check out the full interview below.

Many people may not realize that you are extremely accomplished. You started out as Will Smith’s intern. Take us through your journey. 

It’s been a 20-year journey. I got started when I was 18. I always had the goal of one day starting my own production company and producing my own films as well as television shows. So, getting my start with a guy like that [Will Smith], who is so accomplished and so incredible and one of the nicest, and most inspirational people you’ll meet. I think it was just a divine encounter, an appointment for me to be able to start my career with that type of mentorship, guidance and leadership because it really helped to shape everything in my career: how I navigate the entertainment industry, how I deal with people, how I continue to believe for the things I know are possible and also to have fun along the way. I mean, you know when you look at Will, he has a lot of fun! He enjoys life. He’s phenomenal. It’s a blessing to be able to get my start, and for that seed of my career to be planted there, and to now see it grow is amazing.

It sounds as though you and Will developed a great relationship along the way. Tell us what you’ve learned about establishing relationships on your rise to the top.

I think that relationships are essential, there’s no question about that. And the best way to develop a relationship is to serve. From a career standpoint, too many people go into relationships thinking “what can I get from this person?” Instead of “what I can add to this person?” And when you make deposits in someone else’s account, that is the best way to build relationships. Selfless deposits where you’re not looking for a return, you’re just saying “I believe in what you’re doing, and I’m going to help serve.” And what I have learned is that the way that I’ve been able to do what I’m doing in such incredible relationships is through this [serving]. And, as things happened and I needed help, those people that I placed deposits into their accounts, I wouldn’t even have to go ask for a withdrawal.

For example, Miracles from Heaven is a movie I just produced. One day, I look up on Facebook and Will posted a congrats to his 70M+ followers, “… congrats DeVon, Miracles from Heaven.” [I] didn’t have to ask. But that’s kind of like saying “hey I see you, I believe in you and I’m going to support you.” And I believe that too many times we look at relationships as one-sided and I would encourage anyone that’s trying to progress in their career to start with where you work. Make people’s lives better and easier wherever you’re working, and that will lead to more opportunities.

Tell us about some of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered in your career.

The biggest challenge is having the dream, but not always seeing how it’s manifesting. It’s faith: faith is belief with no proof. And that’s hard, and what makes it compounded  is that when you have a vision for your life, and your current existence doesn’t align with that vision, and then you’re in an environment where it feels like others are progressing and you feel like you’re stuck, then that’s when it’s hard. And there have been many moments in my career where I’ve dealt with the emotion of feeling stuck and feeling like “is it ever going to happen?”

So, how did you overcome that challenge and how did you deal with those emotions?

Part of it is to keep going. The thing I had to do was say, “OK, if I’m in this moment right now, I must be here for a reason. Because I’m obsessing over where I want to be, what am I missing in the now?” Sometimes, we’re so obsessed or frustrated with where we want to be, we spend so much time and energy on “well, why aren’t I there yet, or why isn’t this happening?” Instead of telling yourself that it’s negative energy. What is the positive energy that I can unleash in the current moment? What are the productive things that I can currently do in this moment that will help me get to where I want to be? And what I’ve noticed in my career is that in the moments that I was obsessing, I was wasting time. But the moments where I said “OK, this is not where I want to be, but it’s where I am — what can I do now to maximize this moment, that will help me get ready for where I’m supposed to be?” Doing things like that helped. Staying in church really helped because it gave me an anchor. Having family around really helped, and to continuously know who I am and not get lost in the process. You may be in a job, that they don’t know who you are, but you know who you are, and that’s self-identity. The power in that really helped me in moments when, quite frankly, I felt like giving up.

That’s powerful, and I’m sure it’s going to help numerous people in that area. To close, give us three pieces of advice you would give to aspiring filmmakers.

  1. Know your why. Know why do you want to do it — why do you want to make films?
  2. What kind of films do you want to make?
  3. Study to show yourself approved.
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