One of the most highly anticipated films of the 2014 holiday season is a new remake of Annie, starring Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhane Wallis. DeVon Franklin, CEO of Franklin Entertainment and former Senior Vice President of Columbia/TriStar Pictures, is one of the main creative executives who worked behind the scenes to help bring this movie to fruition, and he spoke with UF’s Jelani Greenidge about how doing what he does ties into his calling.
JG: Before we talk about “Annie” itself, would you talk for a moment about what your role is like as a producer, for those readers unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the entertainment business?
DF: Yes. The role of the producer is to find content, whether it’s a book or a script or what have you, to sell that content to a studio, and then help develop that idea into a script that a studio wants to make, then to help put that movie together with a director, with actors, and then once that movie is greenlit into production, the producer is there onset every day to make sure that the shots are coming out well, then in post-production the producer works with the director to make sure the movie is coming together the right way, and then in marketing, the producer is also out there helping to publicize the film. So the role of the producer is essential, and the majority of movies that you see at the box office are there because a producer is working behind the scenes putting things together.
JG: That seems like a pretty hands-on process. Is that pretty standard for the role, or are you particularly a hands-on type of manager?
DF: No, producers are traditionally very hands-on, because when you think about all the different roles involved, movie-making is a very collaborative effort, so yes, that’s pretty standard.
JG: So let’s talk about “Annie,” then. I’m excited for the film, and I know that you are, too. Specifically, I saw in a recent interview, you were speaking so highly of the film that you said you wouldn’t be surprised if people left the multiplex feeling good, then turned around and went right back in to see it again. That got my attention, for sure. I was thinking, “This is a man who stands behind his product.”
DF: (laughing) Hey man, it’s true.
JG: But it got me wondering, why remake this film now? Was there something specific about the way it came together in this season as opposed to in years past?
DF: Well you know in filmmaking, timing is everything. Movies sort of have their own time tables, and a lot of times, you might want to make a movie, but the script’s not ready or the talent’s not ready, and you can’t do it right when you want to. So the way this came together felt really organic, the timing of it. The story had been in development for a couple years, but for the script to come in when it did, Will Gluck came in, and he’s such a phenomenal storyteller, then Quvenzhané and Jamie became available, so all of those things just sort of came into alignment to bring this story to life.
It’s also a good time for this kind of a movie to come out, because the themes in the story are just as relevant today for this generation as they were for previous generations.
JG: Was there any one inciting moment that caused you to want to be involved or that sparked the idea? Like, I heard an internet rumor that this movie happened because the Jay-Z “Hard Knock Life” remake was such a big hit, so “they just decided to keep the remake going and do the whole movie.” Was there anything like that?
DF: No, no… that wasn’t the motivating factor. I mean, sure, Jay-Z being involved, Will Smith and James Lassiter, sure, that helped maybe put it over the line, but ultimately, the reason to do it came down to the story, the script. Originally Willow Smith was going to do it, but then she decided there was some other things she wanted to do at the time, so then once Will Gluck came in with a fantastic rewrite, and once everyone read the script, that was the deciding factor in making the film.
JG: Excellent. The story always comes first. Now, I know you’ve developed a reputation as an outspoken Christian in the industry… would you describe this as a faith-based film, or is it more of a general audience family-friendly film?
DF: You know, it’s interesting… inherent in your question is the idea that something faith-based isn’t for everybody.
JG: It sounds like you reject that premise.
DF: You know what? I do. Because everyone’s definition of what faith-based is so different. My goal is to bring movies to the screen that can be for everybody. So I would say with “Annie,” this is a movie for everyone. And I think there are some really strong themes of inspiration and faith that are in the movie, and those things are articulated in a way that can be accessible for audiences of all ages.
JG: Do you ever find yourself, as a producer or in any of the other roles you’ve held in the filmmaking process, find it’s difficult to manage the tension between keeping the product family-friendly and making it artistically resonant?
DF: No, not at all. Because one of the things that has helped me is that I travel the country and I speak to people and interface with people on a regular basis. So part of that dynamic is being in touch with what people are going through. That tension and conflict that we deal with on a day to day basis… if I’m not shaping content that can reflect and address that vision, then I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s important to reflect the organic tension that audiences are going through on the screen. If you go back and look at some of the great classic movies that were made for family audiences… even in the animated space, they don’t pull punches when it come to the dramatic. I mean look at “Frozen” … in the beginning of the movie, the parents die!
JG: Oh yeah, Pixar’s “Up” was like that, too.
DF: Right! Okay… so yeah, I mean you see people going through some amazing things… whoa, his wife died? What?! So I think that’s something that I want to change, that perception that family movies have to be bland, or uninteresting. I don’t think that’s the case at all. I want my films to create an experience where people in families can connect, where people can then leave the film in dialogue about that connection that they felt. I think that is fantastic, and that’s when you see movies like that do like a billion dollars, because the dramatic, emotional punches aren’t pulled.
Because man, let’s be honest. Families go through hardships and difficulties. But a film can put the idea into the atmosphere that even though we may go through difficult times, when you come together as a family, you can make it through anything. For young kids, you might be in a family, similar to Annie, where you don’t have your real parents, but you can still find a family. You can still have a home. When people come to this movie “Annie,” specifically, it will give them a deeper appreciation for what struggling families can go through together, and really, a deeper appreciation for each other.
JG: Wow, yeah. That’s quite an endorsement.
So if I could shift gears for a moment and talk about your career, you’ve become quite the role model for students or aficionados of faith-based filmmaking. In some of your other interviews, you mentioned that part of how “Annie” came together was because of your different internships and your connection to James Lassiter (Will Smith’s production partner) and all that. So it seems that a lot of what you do is very relational. Can you talk about what you’ve done to cultivate those professional relationships to advance your career?
DF: You know, at the end of the day, it’s all about service. I started in the industry when I was 18 years old, I didn’t have any friends or family in the business. Nobody knew me. What I wanted the most, besides opportunity, was information. How to be successful. How do you make it in this game? And the people who I worked for, they had the information I wanted. But the only way I could get it was not through conversation, initially, because it’s like “listen, you’re an intern.” Nobody wants to stop and have conversation with an intern. So the only way I could create a conversation is by serving people. I learned how to anticipate the needs of the people around me. So during my internship I would look around and notice, “hey, these files are horrible.” So without being asked, I decided, “hey you know what, I’m gonna organize these files.” I decided to go to each assistant that had paperwork and say, “hey, let me file these for you.” I decided to go get the coffee, I would memorize people’s lunch orders. The way I made myself valuable enough to talk to, was through service.
JG: That’s awesome.
DF: Even today, it’s like, service, service, service. As a producer, I’m constantly asking the question, “how can I serve the vision you’re trying to fulfill?” Because it actually gives me a value and a sense of place and fulfillment. And often, the result of service is relationship. Because so many people are, so often, focused on, this is what I want, this is what I’m trying to do, that when you come across someone who really wants to service, it really sticks out. People notice that. My ability to cultivate relationships was completely an outflow of learning to serve and to be a servant.
JG: Excellent. One final question before you go… if you can take off your executive or producer hat, what kind of movies do you enjoy as a fan, when you just wanna kick back and relax?
DF: Great question. I like to watch movies that are about something. I like to watch movies that will take you on an amazing journey, and leave you in a place where you walk out of the theater, and you feel like the experience had some meaning. For me, like the Rocky franchise was like that. You come out of that, you feel like man, I can DO THIS… I’m about to start training.
JG: Gettin’ strong now!
DF: That’s right, (laughing) that’s right… those movies with interesting characters that are flawed at times, but still pursue the common good, that’s what I like. Whether it’s in a sci-fi, an indie film, horror, what have you, doesn’t matter the genre. I just like great stories that are well executed, and that leave you thinking about life in a positive way.
Franklin Entertainment’s feature film “Annie,” starring Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhané Wallis will be released on December 19th in theaters nationwide.