Grace Under Pressure

You don’t have to tell Chaz Echols how difficult it is to break into Hollywood as a screenwriter. The Los Angeles Film School alumnus is keenly aware that his current success in the industry is atypical even for the most seasoned of non-union writers, let alone recent film school graduates.  Currently serving as the Head of Development for Footage Films Entertainment, Echols vividly remembers his humble starting point as a green freelance crew member taking on unpaid work simply to build experience and connections. He hardly imagined that in a little more than 18 months, he would be in on the other side of the employment coin – requesting intern and crew candidate referrals from the school that trained him, to interview for opportunities on his production company’s upcoming film projects. Yet despite the whirlwind course that his career has taken since completing the Film program, Echols remains the picture of grace under pressure – a lesson learned, carried, and always applied.

After obtaining his Associates of Science in Film in June of 2013, Echols went straight into the Entertainment Business program, with the intention of powering through for his Bachelor’s Degree. A year into the curriculum, however, Echols caught wind from a friend in his accounting class that rising hip-hop artist Mila J was preparing to shoot three promotional music videos – including one for her hit single “My Main” – and that the production team was looking to replace a 1st AD that had dropped out of the shoots at the last minute. Despite the fact that producers would not be financially compensating the replacement AD, Echols asked his classmate to refer him as a candidate anyway. For Echols, who simply was eager to work on a project with strong name recognition, the Mila J videos represented a high-profile opportunity for him to showcase the fruits of his training and demonstrate what he was capable of in the industry. All three videos that Echols assistant directed premiered on Mila J’s YouTube channel to solid success, with “My Main” going on to reach over 17 million hits to date. Echols’ drive and ability on the shoot did not go unnoticed, as he caught the eye of the video’s producers – Chris Stokes and Marques Houston, the latter of whom was the well-known former lead singer of 90’s superstar group IMx.

Echols was thrilled that assistant directing on the videos gave him facetime with Stokes and Houston, as well as an avenue to approach them about his screenwriting aspirations. After presenting them a few scripts that he had written, Echols impressed Stokes and Houston enough that they gave him a try out to revise some scripts that they were looking to produce under their production company’s banner, Footage Films Entertainment. One such script was a 210 page monstrosity that Stokes and Houston were looking to pare down to an industry standard feature length manuscript. And while the two producers expected little when they assigned the revision task to Echols, they absolutely were floored when he returned four days later with a completed rewrite and insisted that they read it. Stokes and Houston loved the revision so much that afterward they offered Echols a full-time paying job as Head of Development for Footage Films.

As Echols laughingly explains, over the next several months, he acclimated to his new position through a lot of trial by fire. Stokes and Houston had a knack for conjuring film premises from random stray thoughts, and Echols often was tasked with producing full-length drafts for ideas that were little more than single loglines. The amorphous nature of the producers’ project development allowed Echols unprecedented creative freedom, but also the challenge of providing the bulk of a project’s narrative structure to fit within Stokes and Houston’s financial and logistical needs. Perhaps the most intimidating bit of on-the-job training came when Stokes and Houston requested Echols to accompany them on a pitch meeting to sell their projects. Initially excited that he would get to attend, quietly observe, and perhaps elaborate on certain creative beats, Echols was surprised and terrified when he arrived and was asked to lead the pitch instead. Echols recalls with a great sense of humor how caught off-guard he was during his first pitch meeting and how rough his first few pitches were initially. But as he looks back today, he is appreciative of how valuable being tossed in the deep in end was to his growth in the industry.

Among the benefits of his trials by fire, Echols raves about how it did wonders for the refinement of his presentation skills and confidence. Interestingly, Echols mentions that taking the lead on pitch meetings helped him to break an ingrained stigma about nasty and boorish programming executives. As Echols recounts, he was surprised to find that most of the executives he pitched to weren’t the stereotypical rude and impatient pitbulls, as most were understanding of the intimidating nature of the meetings and conducted themselves with pleasant and polite behavior. Echols points out that most executives want to be understanding about rough presentation meetings, because they don’t want a nervous pitch to cloud them from unearthing what otherwise would be a good project for development. Similarly, Echols mentions how the variable nature of working in a non-union capacity taught him how to flex his creativity in terms of writing with small budget production costs in mind. By being simultaneously exposed to both the creative and producorial sides of development, Echols was able to witness the application of a lot of the theory he learned while at the Film School. Among one of his bigger gained revelations, Echols mentions that he learned about the various different avenues and possibilities for distribution that can influence a film’s chances of production.

Beyond that, he also learned a lot about the importance of building relationships with talent. One particularly insightful comment that Echols discusses is his observation of the “small world” feel of Black Hollywood. As Echols explains, he noticed that many established African American actors were very willing and even eager to participate in smaller, intimate projects for a significantly smaller pay scale simply because it gave them a vehicle to play dramatic and meaty roles that they typically were left out of consideration for in bigger studio films.

Perhaps the most important thing that Echols has learned from this job, however, is a belief in his own ability. As he shakes his head with a smile, Echols admits that prior to working for Stokes and Houston, he had never completed a script any faster than in several months. But the breakneck pace that has accompanied the needs of a non-union production company like Footage Films has made clear to Echols that he can not only crank out a quality script quickly, but also within a tight independent budget. In fact, Echols proudly recounted that the initial draft for his first feature screenwriting credit, “Will to Love,” was completed from a single logline in the span of a week, all in preparation for a pitch meeting. Shot on a micro-budget of $50,000, “Will to Love” premiered on the TVOne network to over 1.9 million viewers before later also being distributed for home video through Walmart, Amazon, and other retailers.

Though Echols counts his lucky stars and repeatedly attributes his fortune to God’s grace, he also mentions the importance of faith, not just in a higher power, but also in his ability and relationships with who he has worked with. Readily admitting that his situation could just as easily have turned into a non-union horror story, Echols is grateful that he has not been haunted by some of the risks that he’s taken. He notes that not all non-union producers are as benevolent as Stokes and Houston, and that the leap of faith they took in giving him a chance was reciprocated by some of the initial ghostwriting he was hired to do as Head of Development. Understandable qualms about whether the ghostwriting would jeopardize his chances of receiving official writing credit posed as a potential challenge to his faith about the role he accepted at Footage Films. Yet Echols credits his strong faith with carrying him through the uncertainty and blessing him with good career fortune.

Incidentally, Echols’ unshakable faith was poignantly most learned before he enrolled at Los Angeles Film School. A former army veteran, Echols was medically discharged from duty at a base in Alaska a single day right before the U.S. military issued a stop-loss that involuntarily prevented any further discharges, medical or otherwise. Following an attack involving his former base comrades, Echols learned that the soldier who replaced him in his unit was one of the tragic number that lost their lives. Realizing that God’s grace may have been the only thing to spare him a similar fate, Echols takes nothing about his career for granted, despite how exhausting and demanding his position has been. While most others might balk at how frenetic and non-stop the writing and pitching has been at Footage Films, Echols considers it all a blessing because at the end of the day he knows it’s out of the true line of fire and ultimately, this is what he wants to be doing. The time managing, prioritizing, and stressful juggling of working on dozens of scripts and rewrites is something that Echols’ military discipline made easy for him to handle. But it’s that moment of God’s grace directly after his discharge that he attributes to helping him appreciate where he is during his job’s most overwhelming days and stay the picture of grace in a chaotic storm.

As Echols notes, time management is now something he has a tremendous handle on. After requesting leave finally to go on his honeymoon, Echols returned to Footage Films in 2016 refreshed and ready to get back to work. His most recent writing credit, “Dinner with the Stankershets,” just finished filming and is awaiting word on how it will be distributed. Already at work on the next series of projects for Stokes and Houston, Echols also made it a New Year’s resolution to carve time for projects of his own. He helped story produce on a Tisha Campbell documentary directed by fellow LAFS alumni Akil Pugh, who Echols helped get aboard “Will to Love” and “Dinner with the Stankershets” as a paid assistant director. As he states, with the grace that God has shown him, he very much wants to give back to friends, classmates, and future fellow alumni in the industry by bringing them aboard the projects he has the fortune to work on. And while he acknowledges that everything goes back to a moment of grace that was out of his hands, he has made it an obligation moving forward to make the absolute most of the life and career that was gifted to him to honor his fallen comrade. For Chaz Echols, grace given must be grace shared.

 

“Will to Love,” starring Marques Houston and Keshia Knight Pulliam, is available for purchase now on DVD/Blu-Ray at WalMart, Amazon, and other retailers.