Interview: DeVon Franklin Talks Academy Diversity Standards, Why Christians Should Lead on Inclusion

DeVon Franklin is seen at the 24th Annual Movieguide® Awards in thsi 2016 file photo. (Photo: Movieguide®/Flickr CC)

The Christian filmmaker behind Breakthrough and The Star played a big role in drafting diversity standards that will apply to future Best Picture contenders at the Oscars.

It’s an impassioned dialogue reaching to the highest echelons of cultural power—and a longtime producer of faith-based films is right at the center of it.

On September 8, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced new standards for Oscar nominees for Best Picture “to encourage equitable representation on and off screen, in order to better reflect the diversity of the movie-going audience.” Set to be implemented in 2024, the standards come in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite social movement started by April Reign and which called out the lack of ethnic diversity among Oscar nominees.

Reactions have been polarized to the standards, called “woke quotas” on the right and dismissed as “tepid” by Reign. Yet, the African American man who co-chaired the Academy task force behind the new standards has spent decades as a bridge-builder, particularly between nonreligious Hollywood and communities of faith.

“On the task force, we knew it would be impossible to put out standards like this that didn’t receive criticism from both sides,” said DeVon Franklin, 42, in a phone interview. “But we didn’t want perfection to get in the way of progress and creating change.” In his 24-year Hollywood career, Franklin has developed and produced a dozen films including The Star, Breakthrough, and Heaven Is for Real, which earned over $100 million worldwide.

Speaking from his Los Angeles-area office, Franklin discussed his role with the Academy, illuminated the process behind the new standards, and addressed current criticisms. The transcript has been lightly edited for length.

Diversity, Faith, and the Academy

Last year, you were appointed to the Academy’s Board of Governors. What events led to that point?

I have been a member of the Academy for, I think, five years. Every year, the Academy lets in new members through all of its various branches. I gained admission as a member of the Executive Branch because I was an executive at Columbia Pictures for a long time.

I immediately got involved with their diversity initiative, at the time called Aperture 2020. By the year 2020, the Academy had committed to various diversity and inclusion benchmarks that they wanted to hit. It was started in response to the #OscarsSoWhite movement. After my initial participation through the Executive Branch, then, last year, I chaired the A2020 committee for the entire Academy.

When the Academy asked me to serve as a Governor at Large—which I currently am, in the second year of a three-year term—I continued to do that work. We were talking about what we could and should do for the next iteration of our inclusion objectives. That became the foundation for taking on this massive task of changing the standards for Best Picture.

There’s a popular perception that Hollywood is not welcoming to Christians. Has your work in faith-based films been a point of discussion with Academy leaders?

Not at all. They know about my work. People have said: ‘Oh, wow, your films are great and powerful’—and whatnot. But I think that there is a misnomer that Hollywood is not open to people of faith. That has not been my experience at all.

How do you connect inclusion and representation to your beliefs as a Christian?

I believe every person is made in the image of God. As followers of Christ, we are talking about ultimately ending up in the most inclusive place, which is heaven. We serve a God who loves everyone. Every Christian should be in support of representation and inclusion, because it is, in my opinion, one of the foundations of our faith.

In my experience, too often Christians take on the role of trying to judge who belongs and who doesn’t. That judgment will forever only rest with God. - DeVon Franklin Click to Tweet

In terms of heaven being inclusive, wouldn’t it be a distortion of the gospel to state every person is going? Could you clarify what you mean?

Listen, I’ve been in the church my whole life. There’s no doubt, when you talk about theology around heaven, I understand what you’re saying. That doesn’t take heaven away from being an inclusive place.

Heaven is not like the VIP Club. His word says: ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.’ At the end of the day, God has the final say and we don’t.

In my experience, too often Christians take on the role of trying to judge who belongs and who doesn’t. That judgment will forever only rest with God. So, yes, I do believe heaven is going to be inclusive. How inclusive? That’s up to him, I don’t know. I don’t have the final say. I just want to make it in, to be quite honest with you.

Defining Inclusion—And the Need for It

Earlier, you mentioned #OscarsSoWhite. From Parasite to Black Panther and beyond, Hollywood has lately made strides in representation. Does the Academy still have problems recognizing work from artists of diverse backgrounds?

Yeah, they do. I absolutely believe that. The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag started, not from some narrow point of view, but from a real place that was based in truth. There has not always been a level playing field for artists of color—which #OscarsSoWhite was specifically about—or for other underrepresented groups.

When you look at the history of the Academy and specifically the Academy Awards, it’s hard to make the case that it’s always been inclusive in awarding works of art from underrepresented groups. So I think that hashtag had merit, and it was a wake-up call. Much of the work that we’re doing now is finally making good on the intent for this industry to be inclusive and the Academy to be as well.

This past June, you were appointed to co-chair this task force of the Academy’s Aperture 2025 initiative. What was the goal of that group?

The goal of the task force, co-chaired by myself and the chairman of Paramount, Jim Gianpulos, was to really take on: what should the new standards for Best Picture be? How do we roll them out? What is the timeline? All of the particulars around the standards were basically our objective.

The responsibilities were to meet with our industry constituents, work with Academy leadership, and figure out how to define the standards. We looked at the breadth and depth of the need, got a lot of feedback, and really worked on refining those standards to where ultimately they are now, in terms of what we announced last week.

When the Academy announced these four separate representation and inclusion standards for Best Picture nominees starting in 2024, you stated this is about enhancing creativity. Could you elaborate on that?

In Hollywood, there are so many great ideas and people—in front of the camera and behind the camera. This is about making sure that all people have equal opportunities, which we believe is really going to lead to an expansion of creativity.

When everyone gets a chance to be considered for jobs and for their work to be represented and rewarded, what happens is you have more creativity because you’re bringing more people into the fold that otherwise may not have gotten a shot. One fantastic example is the power of Hamilton. Look at the creativity of that musical through being inclusive and having representation.

Hollywood so often has been playing in the same sandbox over and over. The goal here is to unleash creativity by actually expanding that sandbox. It allows other artists creating excellent work—with different points of view—to be in that sandbox and create new opportunities in that sand.

Answering Criticisms

While many will resonate with elevating ethnic minority representation, some believers may question why the standards mention LGBTQ-identified persons several times. Has this cohort of people been underrepresented in Hollywood?

Without a doubt, there has not always been equal representation for people from the LGBTQI+ community. We really wanted to make sure that, in some of the standards, we reflected that. In some instances, we specified ethnic and racial groups. In other instances, we referenced women as well as those from the disabled and hearing-impaired communities—because every underrepresented group is important.

What if we as Christians led the way in inclusion? It would show others that this is really what it means to serve Jesus Christ: to welcome all people. - DeVon Franklin Click to Tweet

As believers, we talk about how every person is made in the image of God and to love your neighbor as yourself. This idea in Christianity that we would have a problem with someone who is LGBTQ, it just blows my mind.

Our goal and our job is to love. Everyone—no matter their sexuality, their race, their gender, their disability—should be given equal opportunity to be everything that God created them to be. Too often, we as Christians want to roll up the welcome mat: No, you can’t get in. No, you can’t have opportunity.

What if we as Christians led the way in inclusion? It would show others that this is really what it means to serve Jesus Christ: to welcome all people. This is critical, and I feel like it’s a conversation that we just don’t have enough within our communities of faith.

Some on the left have called this initiative “tepid,” while voices on the right have stated these standards reflect “cultural Marxism.” How do you respond?

Certainly some are saying, Hey, these didn’t go far enough. It’s OK. We know. We get it. But the goal was to get started in creating change. We want to not only make our intent for equal opportunity known, but to put some instruction behind the intent.

Particularly to conservative critics, I would ask: Don’t you want to live in a world that gives equal opportunity to everyone? Sometimes when there’s an intent, it isn’t always realized unless there are guidelines on how to make good on that intent. Our nation had an intent that we all would have the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But what if we had no Constitution? Then how do you make good on that intent?

I’ve been in this industry for 24 years, and there’s not one person who I’ve dealt with at studios, other producers, managers, agents, or anyone that has been against equal opportunity for everyone. What happens, though, is that sometimes people aren’t sure. They ask, “OK, how do we do it?” Or: “Oh, I want to do it—but I’ll put it off.”

What the standards do is they say: We as the Academy acknowledge this is important. We’re giving some guidelines on how to do it, which we’re going to monitor. We have two years to collect data, so we’ll see what it tells us. Maybe certain standards need to be looked at or revised, and other standards are in pretty good shape. In the third year, as you mentioned, the standards will become official.

Why Entertainment Matters

The trade headlines report you’re juggling several films currently in production and a new TV show. What new projects are you most excited about?

Listen, I’m excited about a lot of them! My next film tells the story of Richard Montanez, a Mexican janitor who worked for Frito-Lay and the driving force behind creating Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Then my first film with Paramount is Daring to Live, about four women who do extreme adventures to face their greatest fears in life—everything from skydiving to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

Some new developments are happening on our Kirk Franklin biopic that we’re excited to announce soon. And I just sold a TV show to CBS called Closure based on the life of Hall of Fame baseball great Andre Dawson, who now owns a funeral home. So I’ve got a lot of stuff in the works. The goal for me in entertainment is to use every avenue to inspire, to uplift, to bring hope, to bring healing, and to bring help.

Why is telling stories on screen a pursuit worth your time, treasure, and talent?

In the Scriptures, we see Jesus taught in parables and stories. What better way to unite and inspire people than through one of the biggest storytelling mediums, which is entertainment? As an author, I do a lot of public speaking. But I will never be in front of as many people physically as will watch one of my films or TV shows.

Entertainment is a critical industry in order to shape hearts and minds for the better. Too often, in communities of faith, we demonize Hollywood and speak against it. Young faith-filled filmmakers, writers, producers, directors, and actors want to go to Hollywood, but they get it planted in their spirit: Oh, Hollywood is not for you. They may do not only themselves a disservice, but perhaps even God a disservice.

Because I believe God wants to use us in this industry to bring more hope, to tell better stories, and to have great art on display. Yet the very people that could be successful here never pursue it because they think it will put them at odds with God. I actually believe, if God has called you to it, it’s the opposite. The more you pursue what he has called you to do, the closer you’re going to get to him.

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    Written by Josh M. Shepherd

    Josh M. Shepherd writes on culture, faith, and public policy issues for media outlets including The Stream, Religion & Politics, The Federalist, and Christianity Today. A graduate of the University of Colorado, he previously worked on staff at The Heritage Foundation and Focus on the Family. You can find him on Twitter @joshmshep. Josh and his wife live in the Washington, D.C., area with their son.

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