The “faith-based” genre has had its ups and downs over the last few years, but one person who has had consistent success in the field is DeVon Franklin. As an executive at Sony Pictures, he oversaw the production of Heaven Is for Real, a movie about a boy’s near-death experience that still ranks as the top-grossing “faith-based” film not named The Passion of the Christ. Since then, Franklin — who also preaches on the side (he even had a cameo as a preacher in the Erwin brothers’ Woodlawn) — has become an independent producer on films like Miracles from Heaven and The Star, both of which also rank among the genre’s biggest hits.
Now he’s got a new film in the works: Breakthrough, based on the true story of a boy who fell into a frozen lake and was clinically dead, and then comatose, until his mother and their church began praying for him. The film — which stars Chrissy Metz as the mother, Josh Lucas as her husband and Topher Grace as their pastor — is set for release this coming Easter, and a trailer for the film dropped a couple weeks ago.
I had a chance to speak to Franklin a few days after the trailer dropped, and I’ll be writing more about the film and my visit to the set closer to the film’s release date. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of my recent chat with Franklin.
I hear you had some good news this week, with the Breakthrough trailer getting many, many, many views.
DeVon Franklin: Oh yeah. It’s unbelievable. In 48 hours we got 30 million views, across all social media platforms, which is just unprecedented. I can’t even believe it. I’m like, “God!” I mean, he is doing the impossible with this trailer launch, and what’s amazing is that it’s because people keep sharing it because they’re moved by it, and that is just a great testament, to me, of how much people are connecting with the material. So it’s been a hard week in terms of all the work it took to get it out there, but let me tell you, it’s been a blessed week, seeing the results of it.
When I was in Winnipeg earlier this year, visiting the set, that was just after I Can Only Imagine had come out, so there was a lot of talk at the time about how that was a great example of how there was a lot of interest in faith-based films and so forth. Since then, a number of the faith-based films that have come out haven’t done so well, things like the Unbroken sequel and so forth. And has that been a point of concern for you, that maybe the demand might not be as high as people thought eight months ago?
DF: No! Not even a little bit. I mean, I feel great about our story, and great about what we have, and I don’t look at any one particular success or failure, per se, as a verdict on the space itself. I don’t believe that. I think it may be a commentary on that particular film, but I think too often Hollywood has a tendency to make a judgment on a genre when it just may be that the films that are being released in that genre, people are not connecting to. And if you find a film in a genre — whether it’s a comedy or a superhero film or horror film, whatever the genre is — if you find one film that breaks through, then you’re like, “Oh wow! The genre’s not dead!” So with Breakthrough, I’m excited about it, and certainly the success or failure of any of the films in this space haven’t deterred me or even reaffirmed my faith, per se. I believe what God is doing. I believe in this movie. And I believe it’s going to have its own destiny.
Some of the bigger hits in this genre have been based on best-selling books — or in the case of I Can Only Imagine, a best-selling song — whereas I don’t know how well-known The Impossible, the book that Breakthrough is based on, is. What do you attribute the instant success of the trailer to?
DF: That’s what’s amazing, and that’s what makes me so excited. I mean, listen, I kind of already am excited. You don’t have to do a whole lot to get me ready to go. But the point you made is a brilliant point, which is this is not based upon well-known IP [intellectual property], and to be able to get this many views — 30 million trailer views in 48 hours — how? Because this story is that potent. Patient dead, mother prayed, patient came back to life. And when people see this trailer, it evokes an emotion. People say they cried. They say, “Oh my goodness, I can’t believe I’m crying at this trailer. I’m moved. It gave me chills.” It’s producing a feeling that you rarely get in trailers nowadays. And so I think, because of that, and because of the power of the story, this is why we’re seeing this trailer have the impact as if it was based on a major piece of IP.
Heaven Is for Real and Miracles from Heaven both got into subject matter that some people have some doubts about — the whole visions-of-Heaven kind of thing — whereas Breakthrough doesn’t have that. Breakthrough is simply the boy flatlines and then he comes back. Because this story doesn’t go into that other stuff, do you think that might make this film more accessible?
DF: That’s a great question. Here’s what I think. I think people are always interested in the afterlife, and the glimpse of what is to come when we pass away. And I do think that the success of Heaven Is for Real or Miracles from Heaven certainly did that. What I think, though, is that because there have been so many books and pieces of content in that space, I think audiences are ready for something different but still supernatural, per se. So I think Breakthrough will help satisfy that desire. Because you still get the supernatural impact that this prayer had — how did it happen, and what’s going to ultimately happen to John and whatnot — yet you still base it in a story that you can relate to, and a family that you can root for. So I think that this movie is coming at the perfect time, where he doesn’t go to Heaven and he doesn’t have that experience, yet does it make it more accessible? It might, because some people can relate to that and some people can’t. I mean, I’ve had people — believers and non-believers — watch this movie already, and both groups are incredibly moved by the story, and maybe that is because there’s no Heaven experience in it. So I think we’ll have to wait to see what happens when the movie’s released to really answer that question, but as far as I can assess it now, that’s what I would determine.
Of course, a lot of people, when they hear about stories like this, they get skeptical. What kind of vetting do you do — or when they’re based on books, do you assume the publishers have already dealt with that side of things?
DF: No, when I’m doing a film based on a true story, one, I talk to the real people, and two, when we go to acquire the rights with the studio, we have a team that vets everything, if there’s other people involved in the story that we need to get their rights, we go through a very rigorous process to authenticate the story and to make sure that we’re capturing all the rights we need in order to tell the story.
So talking to people like the firefighter [who heard a voice telling him where to look after the boy disappeared into the frozen lake], that sort of thing.
DF: Yeah, totally. My writer, Grant [Nieporte] — not my writer, I don’t own him, my buddy Grant, who wrote the script — he did a tremendous [job]. I did the initial research, like, “Okay, let me talk to John, let me talk to Pastor Jason, let me talk to Joyce, let me get an idea of the story.” Once I had an idea of what the story was, I then brought Grant on board, and then Grant and I started shaping it, and he had his independent conversations with Joyce, Pastor Jason and John, and then he spoke to everyone else involved, everyone from the firefighter Tommy Shine to Chief Marlo, to really authenticate the story. And I think one of the reasons why people love the film so much is because it is authentic, and a lot of that has to do with Grant and how he wrote the script, all the research he did, and then once Roxann Dawson, our director, came on board, she just took it to a whole nother level.
You were with Sony Pictures for quite some time, and then as an independent producer, some of your first films, like Miracles from Heaven and The Star, were done with Sony. But this one’s being done with Fox. Is there any particular reason why you switched to a different studio for this?
DF: You know, when I was at Sony, I started there back in 2005, and I was there for just about ten years, and right after Heaven Is for Real came out, I felt like God was calling me to start my own company, so I did. I started Franklin Entertainment, I was in a deal with Sony, and while I was in that deal, most of the people that I had worked with and for were transitioning out of the studio. And so, the rule of thumb in the business is that, when you’re a producer, you have your relationship that oversees your deal, and if those relationships leave, your deal may be in jeopardy, because you don’t actually have the people who believe in you and you believe in them. And so, for me, once the executives started to leave, it just felt like it was time to find a new home and kind of build again. And Fox has been an awesome place, and this is the first film we’re doing together, and now they’re being sold to Disney, so that opens up a whole nother chapter, but it was just time to find a new home, and I still have an incredible relationship with Sony — we did The Star, I have other movies over there that we’re doing together — so it’s not a situation of anything negative, it just felt like, “Let me go start at a new place where I can build new relationships that can help lay the foundation for the future of my company.” And it’s a blessing to be able to do that, and to be have this movie at Fox, and to have a great relationship with where I came from, which is Sony.
Do you see Franklin Entertainment as a “faith-based” production company, or is it a company that happens to make some “faith-based” films but it would also make some other films that don’t fall under that umbrella?
DF: Yes, I would say that it is. My goal is to make uplifting, inspirational content. Some of that will fit kind of in the more of a “faith-based” box, some will not. But everything will have some inspirational value to it, whether it’s a comedy, whether it’s a drama, whether it’s any type of film. And my goal is also to make commercial material, whether that is for the big screen or the small screen or even the digital, small, cell-phone screen. That’s what I’m here to do. That’s why I get up every day, as it relates to my film career. Most people will know that I’m an author as well, so I write books. I have a new book coming out in February called The Truth about Men, so everything that I do is like, How do we uplift, how do we inspire, how do I use this incredible platform that God has given me to make the world a better place and change hearts and minds along the way in a positive way.
You talk about making films that are positive and inspirational, but of course, there are sections of the Bible that are a bit darker —
— so could you see yourself producing a film that was more like Job or Ecclesiastes, something like that?
DF: Absolutely. I mean, without a doubt. I mean, I want to produce all different types of content, and I want to produce content that is as riveting as the content in the Bible. I try to be organic and open, so I’m not trying to keep doing the same film over and over again, I’m trying to be open to the stories that I’m destined to tell. Like, for example, my next film will be about the creator of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, believe it or not.
Oh, you talked about that, back in Winnipeg.
DF: That’s right! So that’s the story of the janitor at Frito-Lay who created Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and is now a cultural juggernaut and a billion-dollar brand, and he went from being a janitor to being vice-president of multi-cultural marketing. So I love to tell stories that make you think, “Wow!” And I’m always open to the best stories to tell, and however they come to me.
Because I’m a huge Bible-movie buff, I have to ask: You made The Star last year, which is based on the Christmas story. When I met you in Winnipeg, I asked if you were developing any other Bible stories, and you said you were looking at possibly Samson and the Garden of Eden. Are those still in play? Is there anything else you’re working on?
DF: One is still in play, but the other isn’t, and there is another one that I have, but because neither has been yet announced — I’m going to be announcing one very, very soon — I can’t speak on them yet. But soon! Very, very soon.
Can you say which one is in play still?
DF: Samson is not in the works with me any longer. But the other one is.
The Garden of Eden one?
DF: Yeah. But I can’t say more. The news will be out very soon.
I’m definitely looking forward to that, then. What I remember you saying is that you were looking at doing the Garden of Eden kind of like the Jungle Book live-action movie. Is that still the concept?
DF: Yeah. Exactly. That’s all still the plan.
And that’s all you can say about it for now.
DF: That’s all I can say. But I’ll be able to talk about it very soon. Very soon!
— Breakthrough comes to theatres across North America in April 2019.