—James 4:6 NIV
My great-grandfather emigrated from Jamaica to the San Francisco Bay area before the turn of the twentieth century. Upon arriving, he became a Seventh-day Adventist. When he married my great-grandmother and had a family, he raised all his children in the faith, including my grandmother. Well, as you might expect, she raised her kids, including my mom, the same way. I spent most of my early years under the tutelage of my uncle Dr. D. J. Williams, a legend in the Seventh-day Adventist church who started his own ministry in East Oakland called Wings of Love Maranatha Ministries. That church was where I grew up and into my Christian faith and my life in the service of Jesus’ Word. I gave my first sermon there on Youth Day when I was sixteen. I was always active at school (I was the student body president of my high school), but I was always most active in the church.
But I didn’t want to make the church my life the way my uncle had done; being in the ministry was not in my heart. I wanted to make movies. People said, “DeVon, you should preach,” and I said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” I didn’t understand at the time how ministry could coincide with my film aspirations. I thought it was an “either-or” kind of decision. My perspective was either I was pursuing film or I was going into the ministry, but I didn’t have any idea how I could do both.
It didn’t occur to me that my desired career in Hollywood could dovetail with my service to God, or that my career could become a ministry in itself. The difference maker for me and my perspective on ministry—the thing that helped me get to the point where I am pursuing what God has given to me—actually came from my younger brother. He attended Oakwood University, and while he was an undergraduate, he and his friends decided they wanted to stage a revival at Wings of Love (this is what passes for college- age rebellion in the Christian community!). My younger brother and I always fought growing up because we’re so much alike, but he ultimately prevailed upon me to take a short break from my work and fly up to Oakland for several days to attend the revival. What I saw absolutely blew me away: four young men no older than nineteen, taking turns preaching to big, enthusiastic crowds, all of them on fire for the Lord.
While the other people were standing and swaying and singing and praising Jesus, I was pondering. I felt God saying, “DeVon, I gave you the gift of preaching. Why aren’t you using it?” I replied, “But I want to be in entertainment,” and God shot back, “Don’t worry about that. I have given you a gift. You should use it.”
As I pondered God’s words, it became clear to me that while I had grown up steeped in the faith, I had left for a career in a world that was—outwardly, at least—extremely secular. Professions of faith may be common in the sports world, but they are not as common in Hollywood. The crowd with which you choose to associate—the world in which you immerse yourself—influences the path you choose to walk. Clearly, it had shaped mine.
Had I been distancing myself from my faith because deep down I had thought it would be unacceptable to be a Bible-quoting Christian in the movie business? Had I been assuming that if I “went public” with my beliefs it would hurt my chances to become successful? Perhaps I had. I wasn’t even sure why. I was proud of my faith, my ministry, and my heritage. One thing became clear: I had to make a change.
I began to pray, asking God, “How do you want me to be involved in ministry?” I kept on praying after I went back down to Los Angeles and back to school. Then, about the time I was graduating from USC, I got a call from my uncle. In speaking about the ministry, he would always joke and tell me, “DeVon, you can run but you can’t hide.” But on this occasion he wasn’t joking at all. “DeVon,” he said, “I’m getting older. Can you come up and help me preach?” Okay, God, I said, that was pretty obvious.
I was involved with a church in L.A. at the time, but of course I flew up to Oakland and preached at Wings of Love. It was like coming home. I knew that God wanted me at least to be partially in the world of the church as a minister.
This story is a perfect illustration of how God reaches into our lives to subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) guide our choices in the direction that will help us become the finest people we can be. I was bound and determined to go to Hollywood; pursuing ministry as any sort of vocation was of no interest to me. But God had other plans. I think he wanted me to have an anchor to my faith and the commitments that it represents, even as I went to seek success in the movie business. That’s why he put obvious signs in my path.
When I didn’t pay attention to what people were saying to me, he brought me to my younger brother’s revival and spoke to me. When I still turned away, he sent the call from my uncle, an appeal that I simply could not refuse. Of course, God was right. My preaching and deep involvement in ministry have been a blessing and a real advantage to my career. But it took God a few tries to get his feedback through my thick young man’s head. When I finally listened, doors started to open.
In the film development process, feedback takes the form of notes. Successful professionals in any business solicit feed- back and take it seriously. They do not assume they have all the answers. That is no different in Hollywood. Here, there are no overnight hits. We are in the movie business because we want to make hits that make money and touch the lives of people around the world. But this is a process of collaboration and constant revision. A wise man once said, “Great movies aren’t written, they’re rewritten.” The people who have made hit after hit for decades—Will Smith, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise—are the ones who study the craft, know the business, stay focused, take risks, and look at the long term. They accept feedback, remain humble, and learn from their mistakes.
When a script is in development, every draft comes back to the writer and producer with many notes from the studio on characters, dialogue, pacing, structure, and a hundred other parts of the story. If you want the studio to continue funding your rewrites and eventually get your movie made, addressing notes is essential.
The notes process can be brutal, especially if you’ve been slaving away on a script for years and think you’ve finally got it just right. So you can’t get proud about your work. That’s not to say that a writer should cave about every point; sometimes a scene or character is worth fighting for. But in general, we expect the notes to be taken seriously and best efforts made to address them. As long as critical notes in the script remain unaddressed, the script will remain in development and the movie will not get made. That’s not anyone’s goal. We all want to go into production.
The process of collecting feedback—getting notes— continues even after a film is in the can. When The Karate Kid was wrapped and edited, we started doing test screenings in January of 2010. We ended up being the second-highest-testing movie in the history of the studio and the highest-testing family movie in the history of Columbia Pictures. But that’s only part of the story. When you do a test screening for a movie like this, you test adults, teenagers, and kids.
To create a test screening, you recruit your ideal audience groups. Ours was a mix of mothers with children, families, and general moviegoers. Then you choose a location. The idea is to duplicate as closely as possible the ideal audience and market where you think your film will play well. For some movies, the sweet spot is the middle of the country. For others, you might fly to Vegas or New York. For Karate Kid, we tested in Burbank, California. We recruited an audience of about four hundred and showed the film.
We tested beautifully with all groups, so we knew we had a film that people would respond to. We had some notes about length (should we cut the film to come in below two hours?) and violence (we needed to edit down some violent scenes to get a PG-13 rating without damaging the integrity of the film). We ended up getting the legendary James Horner to score the film. We made some other important compromises and, when we were done, we knew we had a film that would satisfy our many constituencies.
Notes are a critical part of development in the film world, and the same is true in your career. You must be able to take notes from God and from other people in order to learn and grow. God has me at Sony as part of his divine plan for my life. I am in my position because he wants me there. I am learning many things: how to be an executive, how to manage people, and how to balance the demands of my career with the demands of my faith. But if I need to do something differently or use my talents in another way, God will send me notes to advise me of this. If I heed God’s input, he will lead me on paths that will satisfy both his purpose and my ambition at the same time.
God is constantly giving us notes on our choices and the ways in which we exercise our faith. These notes can take many forms: people or events appearing serendipitously, ideas that you can’t get out of your head, or sometimes literal revelations that come to you in prayer. Normally, when God sends you notes, he is trying to course-correct a part of your story, just like a studio executive will try to redirect a point in a script in development. It is up to you to be humble, accept God’s notes, and act on them in good faith. This can be challenging when God’s feedback contradicts something that you really want or a choice that you thought was right. But that’s when you must learn to swallow your pride and pay attention. I speak from experience.
In 2003 I was working as a junior executive for Tracey Edmonds, the job I landed after I left Overbrook. The company had its hands in film, TV, and music, so I was learning my position, making contacts, and absorbing everything that anyone would teach me. Tracey had a “first-look” deal with Fox, which means that Fox paid all the company’s development overhead and in return got an exclusive first look at any new movie ideas. Well, while I was working there, that deal expired. When you’re at a company that doesn’t have a first-look deal, it’s hard to get films made. Agents and writers are much less likely to share material with companies that don’t have a relationship with a studio. So the flow of projects slowed, and the economy (this wasn’t long after the dot-com crash, remember) just made things worse.
I asked God how this was all likely to work out, but didn’t really get a clear answer. I knew I was happy to be an executive. I was having fun working on TV shows, music projects, and more. It was a phenomenal classroom, but it was unclear how I was going to advance. This is when it’s tempting to seize control over our future and try to make things happen.
One precept I have always lived by is that you never burn a bridge, because you never have an idea how the relationships you build today will impact you tomorrow. You should always treat whatever job you’re in as a position of service, even when you think it’s menial or meaningless. You have no idea who is watching or how what they think of you will come into play down the line. In the Parable of the Talents, the master says to the servant, “You have been faithful over a few things, now I will make you ruler over many.” We must stay faithful; while I was feeling lost at Overbrook, if I had let my depression become toxic, I’m certain I would not have had the opportunities I have enjoyed.
One morning, out of the blue, I got a call from Toby Jaffe, executive vice president of production at MGM. I didn’t know who he was, but he knew me. Teddy Zee, a producer who had been at Overbrook, had noticed my work and my passion, and when Toby asked him for someone who might be a good fit at MGM, Teddy gave him my name. They were looking for an executive and wondered if I would be interested in coming in for an interview.
You see how God works? I wasn’t shopping around; I was just doing my job. I had never wanted to be a studio executive. My goal was to be a producer—that was my sole focus. I didn’t know how I was going to make it happen, but that’s what I wanted. I didn’t think a studio executive had a life; all they did was read scripts. I wanted more balance. But then it occurred to me that this might be God sending me a note. Perhaps there was a reason why he was providing me this opportunity. So I agreed to an interview.
I didn’t want anyone at Edmonds to know what was going on, so on Friday it was business as usual. Things were very casual, so I wore jeans. I figured I could go home and change before my interview. But my morning meeting with Tracey ran long and I had to choose. Should I go home and change and be late, or be on time and do the interview in jeans? I decided I would make a better impression by being on time than by being well dressed.
So I walked into the lobby of MGM—gold lion, marble lobby like you’re in Las Vegas—in my jeans and cotton shirt. I met with Toby and Elizabeth Cantillon, executive vice president of production, and it was very relaxed and conversational. We talked about life at a studio, they gave me two scripts to read, asked me to make some notes and come back for another meeting. Coming out of the meeting, I still wasn’t sure I wanted to be a studio executive. But I did the notes. Then I found out through the grapevine that MGM had been searching for a black executive. There are very few studio executives of color, even now, and there were none at MGM. They were just coming off Barbershop and they had no diversity within the company. They wanted to find out who they could hire who had a good reputation and some ability. They had met with every available black executive in town, people much more senior than me. Friends told me not to get my hopes up.
Did I care that race was a consideration? Not at all. Opportunity is opportunity; it’s all about what you do with it that counts. I went to the follow-up interview with Michael Nathanson, the head of production. (This time, I wore a suit and tie.) Toby had told me, “If Michael likes you, we’re going to do this.”
I don’t know if the pressure got to me or what, but I was a wreck. My palms sweated, I didn’t complete my thoughts, and I felt like I was dropping the ball. The opportunity was mine to lose, and I felt I was losing it. So what if I wasn’t sure I wanted to work at a studio? I wanted to have the option! But I figured that if the Lord wanted me to have this job, I would have it.
I must have done better than I thought, because Toby called me after I left and said that Michael liked me. The job was mine if I wanted it. I asked him if I could sleep on it. A door was opening in front of me, but I still wasn’t sure it was the one that I wanted to walk through.
I slept on it, and then next day I talked to one of my dear- est friends in the business, who said, “If you ever get offered a studio job, take it. A studio job is like grad school. You work on a lot of movies and meet a lot of people.”
I looked at the progression of events and I could see God’s hand orchestrating things: Teddy Zee talking to Toby, going to the meeting in jeans and striking a casual tone that allowed Toby and Elizabeth to get to know me, Michael liking me in spite of my clumsy interview. This was a leap of faith on their part; I had never worked on a movie before. If they could take that leap, so could I. I called later that day to accept.
I have no doubt that God was giving me one big note when he steered me toward a studio job. But listening to the feedback was up to me. It was counter to everything I had seen myself doing; the story I was writing was different. But in the end, I had to have faith that God knew better than I did. If I hadn’t been willing to take his note, change my plans, and get outside my comfort zone, who knows where I might be? Quite possibly out of the business. One thing you can say about the great leaders in the Bible, from Joseph to Paul: they never played it safe.
God’s notes will always guide you toward situations that will test you and help you become a greater person and a better Christian. They may not line up perfectly with your plans, but that’s where faith comes into play. Are you defensive—or willing to listen? How ready are you to collaborate with God on your path? Odds are, when God sends you a note, he is trying to put you in position to learn more about your craft and become more of an asset to your employer and to him. But first you have to recognize a note for what it is, then be willing to listen.
• You don’t get a position or a deal that you wanted badly, even though you thought you had it locked up. God holds the copyright on “Be careful what you wish for.” If he prevents you from getting something that you were aching for, it’s because it would not have turned out to be the blessing you expected.
• Your instincts set off alarm bells about a company, a person, or a decision. Trust them. Gut feelings and intuition are God whispering in our ears that something’s not right.
• You receive advice from someone you didn’t expect. When it’s from your boss or your super- visor, that’s normal. But when a client, vendor, or competitor does it, that’s especially notable. Be sure to listen.
• You happen upon an article, blog post, or TV segment about a career-related subject that’s been on your mind. This happens to me frequently: I’ll be thinking about a project, a company, or a person and seemingly out of nowhere, I stumble upon relevant, useful information about that same project, company, or person. Carl Jung called these “synchronicities.” I call them God getting our attention.
• You get a performance review that takes you by surprise. Notes don’t get much more obvious than this. If your review isn’t as good as you expected, that’s often a very direct message from the Lord to either step up your efforts or rethink what you’re doing.
When you get a note from God, pay attention. In Hollywood, a studio will fund the development of a screenplay as long as the writer, producers, and/or director are working in good faith to fix problems and move the project forward. But sometimes, creative teams fail to address the notes that I or other studio execs give them.
It’s not always from a lack of trying; sometimes notes are difficult to execute. In other instances, the creative team genuinely disagrees with the notes and feels the project has been in development for too long without moving any closer to production. In any case, notes are being given, rewrites are being done, and the problems persist. There are times when no amount of notes or months of hard work can fix a script. This usually happens because a concept or story is fatally flawed. Whatever the reason, if this failure continues, development will stall. When that happens, the studio may choose to stop funding development. This is when a project is on the brink of falling into what we call “Development Hell,” which I’ll talk about in the next chapter.
God will give you notes on your character and on the areas of your life that need to be improved. If you’re not making progress in life or in your career in the way you had in mind, you should be ready to humble yourself, absorb the lesson, and take action.
What notes has God given you on your career so far?
How did you respond to them?
What has happened in the past when you ignored God’s notes?
How have you benefited from following God’s feedback, even if it was counter to what you wanted at the time?
How has following the feedback from other people made you better at what you do?
Are you in a position to be a source of notes to others? If so, how do you deliver your feedback?