Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 06/07/23

Producer DeVon Franklin is as hot as a Flamin’ Hot Cheeto – and that’s sayin’ somethin’. So, it seems appropriate that his newest feature film Flamin’ Hot (dropping this Friday (6/9) on Disney+ and Hulu) offers the inspirational account of Richard Montañez (played by Jesse Garcia), the Mexican American Frito-Lay janitor said to have come up with the idea for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos which went on to become a global pop culture phenomenon.

The openly Christian filmmaker, who is also a bestselling author and in-demand motivational speaker, is known in the industry for delivering a long string of hit inspirational films going all the way back to 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness and 2014’s Heaven is for Real through 2016’s Miracles from Heaven and 2019’s animated Christmas film The Star (the latter two films under his own Franklin Entertainment production banner). On television his gospel music-themed drama Kingdom Business has just finished production for a second season on BET. Other BET projects in the pipeline include a funeral home-set family drama called Closure and Played, a sitcom on which he’ll actually co-star as a single guy’s conscience. Also in the  works are a coast guard drama in development for CBS and a long-anticipated movie reboot of the multimedia fantasy franchise Masters of the Universe currently planned for a 2024 release.

JWK: Hi, DeVon, how are you?

DeVon Franklin: I’m doing great! How are you?

JWK: I’m good, thank you. I’m actually a big fan of your work. I think you do a great job at bridging the so-called divide between faith audiences and general audiences. I’d like to get your thoughts on that briefly. You have said “The faith-based audience is much bigger and much more diverse than Hollywood understands – and the faith-based audience is the same audience that’s going to see all of your big tentpole films and all your animated movies.” Can you elaborate on that? Has the industry drawn a fake line between the faith audience and the general audience?

DF: Yeah, you know, I think that the faith audience is the same audience that’s powering the success of Disney+, the Marvel films and so many other family films (like) the Pixar movies and whatnot. I think that sometimes there is this kind of arbitrary line that’s created between the two audiences. What I try to remind Hollywood is that this audience likes all types of films – (especially) films they can watch with their family. They love great entertainment. They love things that are uplifting, inspirational and aspirational. It’s something that I’m continuously ringing the bell on and fighting the good fight. Movies like Flamin’ Hot just make the case that there is an audience out there that wants movies that can be uplifting, aspirational, spiritual and inspirational, as well.

JWK: What drew you to this particular story?

DF: I just thought it was amazing! I couldn’t believe it! I was like “Whoa, this is true?!” When I met with Richard Montañez about six or seven years ago, he just sat down in my office and told me his story about starting as a janitor working for Frito-Lay at Rancho Cucamonga, having this idea for spicy product and then being given the opportunity to go and market the product as he saw it. He said “Hey, if we could just take this product and market it to my community it will help save the factory.”

So, his vision to do that turned into what we now know as Flamin’ Hot Cheetos which is a cultural icon, a juggernaut and a billion-dollar brand. It just blows my mind! When I heard it I said I couldn’t believe this is true – that a product that you think is just kinda trivial – like Flamin’ Hot Cheetos – actually has an inspirational story behind it. It was so unique that I said that’s the movie that I want to make. In that meeting I gave him my word that we would get the movie done and I’m grateful that we have.

JWK: I’m sure you’ve heard – I mean it’s out in the media – that there’s been some questions raised from former Frito-Lay employees about whether Richard came up with the idea himself. Do you have any comment on that?

DF: Yeah. The movie articulates and shows how it all worked together. We don’t hide anything. We don’t pull any punches. When you see the film you see “Oh, okay, I see how Richard did what he did, I see how the company was doing what they were doing and then you see where these two story lines meet and where, ultimately, Richard’s marketing genius directly contributed to the success of the product. So, I’m grateful that we could make a movie to set the record straight.

JWK: What was it like to work with Richard?

DF: Awesome! He’s an inspiration. Every time you talk with him he’s got a great word of encouragement. He’s always so positive. He’s someone that I value having in my life through this process because he’s someone that always has the positive word. He reminds me of what matters the most. He’s always forward thinking. It’s just been a real joy to work with him.

JWK: And the movie is directed by Eva Longoria.

DF: Yeah.

JWK: How did it come about that you brought her on and what was it like working with her?

DF: I was looking for a director. So, I sent the script out and I took about 12 director meetings. I believe – and I’ve always believed – that if you commit to the process that the director is gonna show up. So, you know, I met with Eva. She came into the meeting and as she started talking about the script I just said “Wow! I think this is our director.”

Now, I knew that she had never directed a movie before. She had directed a lot of television episodes but never a movie – but I didn’t let that deter me. I believed (in) the way that she was talking about the film – her vision for the film.  I just said “This is the movie that I want to make and I believe you’re the best person to make this movie.” So, her and I partnered up – from that moment to this – to  bring this movie to the world.

JWK: In the process did you eat a lot of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos?

DF: Too many! Yes! The answer is yes! You know, before I started developing the script I actually had never had a Flamin’ Hot Cheeto but then once I started developing it I said “I better try this so I know what I’m talking about.” To my surprise they are as habit forming as you would think! So, I do my best to have a restriction on my Flamin’ Hots. They even have some baked ones. So, usually, if I’m gonna do it, I do the baked ones so I don’t feel too bad about goin’ in.

JWK: What do you hope people take from the story?

DF: I want people to take hope. I mean this is a real story. This is a true-life hero. I know that audiences around the world are obsessed with Marvel and all these other superhero movies and that’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that but they’re all fake. It’s all made up. It’s all make-believe but Richard Montañez is a real hero. Anyone watching the film can do what he did in their own way.

So, my hope is that people take away hope, they take away inspiration and they also take away that love wins and that love is powerful. The movie has a powerful love story between Richard and (his wife) Judy that will really connect to audiences. So, I want people when they’re finished watching this film to be inspired, to have hope and to commit to love.

JWK: You’ve done several true-life stories in your career. Are you attracted to those?

DF: Yeah, I am attracted to the true-life story. One of the main reasons is because of what I was mentioning – that, you know, it’s cool to make something fictional that people connect to. That’s cool. There’s nothing wrong with that – yet I think there’s a different impact when you’re watching a film that’s based upon somebody who really did what you’re watching.

I’m from the Bay Area. I’m the middle child of three boys. I grew up in a very, very humble upbringing. My father died when I was young. Movies and going to church really got me through. I was just so captivated by entertainment (that) I just said “I gotta be a part of this industry that has helped me because I just want to help others with it.”

So, you know, it definitely speaks to me. I think audiences will connect to that because movies like this give you the opportunity to see what’s possible and what you can apply to your life. Going back to the superhero thing, no matter how hard you try, you can’t put on a suit and run through your city faster than the speed of lightning. It’s not gonna work – but you can have an idea like Richard. You can have a vision like Richard. You can have tenacity like Richard. You can have perseverance like Richard, And you can succeed like Richard. So, that’s what I’m connected to. That’s why I love true stories and this is one that I’m very proud of.

JWK: Maybe you can do a movie where somebody eats a radioactive Flamin’ Hot Cheeto and gets superpowers.

DF: Hey, if it’s true and it’s good, you never know! Don’t put it past me. I might just do it!

JWK: You also do a lot of television, including Kingdom Business on BET which is a drama series set in the world of gospel music.

JWK: What’s the difference between doing movies and doing a television series?

DF: With television every episode is like a mini-movie. With Kingdom Business, we’ve done 16 episodes so far. So, literally, it’s like 16 different movies. TV is like you’re shooting one episode while you’re prepping another episode and then you’re editing that episode while you’re shooting an episode while you’re prepping another episode. So, the world of television is much more intense in my experience than film…You know, we shot Flamin’ Hot over 35 days. In movie time that’s about six or seven weeks…Whereas in 14 days we shot two episodes of Kingdom Business. So, the pace is just much more rigorous but being a filmmaker, I think, has helped me make better television.

JWK: Also for BET, you have an upcoming sitcom that you’re gonna star in. Am I correct about that?

DF: Yes.

JWK: And recently you acted in the film Jesus Revolution.

DF: Yes.

JWK: So, are you developing a taste for acting?

DF: I think so – and I think acting is developing a taste for me – which is cool! It was never something that I was planning for or dreaming about. It’s just something that has found me and I really enjoy it.

First of all, to be in Jesus Revolution is amazing. I mean that movie is incredible. It’s touched lives all over the world. It’s the biggest box office success this year for an inspirational true film. To be a part of it truly is just a miracle and an answer to prayer. And then to be able to do other roles. You know, I just finished a role in Kingdom Business for Season 2. I also just another film which will be out this year. So, you know, I love acting and excited to continue to do more of it.

JWK: This’ll be my last question. You wrote a book called The Commandments of Hollywood: A Spiritual Guide to Secular Success where you deal with the issue of people of faith sometimes having a conflict with the idea of success. Have you dealt with that yourself – and what is your advice for people of faith who may feel like it’s almost a sin to be successful?

DF: Of course, I’ve dealt with that myself (but) what I’ve dealt with is certainly not the issue of feeling like it’s a sin to be successful. What I’ve dealt with is how to have the faith required for success at times when things are not going the way that I would like them to go and situations are working out the opposite way that I would want. It’s in those moments when I’ve had to really look at myself…and assess my faith. In those moments, that’s when I’ve been looking to honestly refill my faith. (That’s why) so much of what I do – no matter what the story is (deals with faith). Even with Flamin’ Hot, there’s a strong faith through line in that film because I do believe that faith works and, when we use it, it is our real superpower. So, for me, in my life, I can only make a movie about it because I’ve had to live it. That’s why I wrote the book The Hollywood Commandments – to give any reader the tips and tools that they need to navigate life successfully without losing faith.

JWK: Fantastic. It was a pleasure talking with you.

DF: Great talking with you too. Thank you so much.

JWK: And good luck with the film.

DF: Thank you. I appreciate that.

John W. Kennedy is a writer, producer and media development consultant specializing in television and movie projects that uphold positive timeless values, including trust in God.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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