SCREENWRITER: MARK RENSHAW (WARRINGTON, UK)
Q: Mark...when did you write your first screenplay?
A: Unofficially, I wrote a lot of short screenplays in the early 90s, but I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I had no idea about formatting, etc. and simply wrote spoofs starring the people I was working with. I used to send them around the office and they proved quite popular. One guy liked them so much he asked me to make a short movie with him. It was just him, me, a few family members as extras and a borrowed camera. I wrote the "script" and we went for it, guerrilla filmmaking style! It was called, I Am Peter Cushing. It was a comedy about a day in the life of a delusional man (played by me) who believes he is the famous vampire hunter, Peter Cushing. We were proud of the result and entered into a local film festival in Manchester; the Festival of Fantastic Films. Surprisingly enough, it won best amateur film and can still be found on Youtube. Unfortunately Hollywood did not beckon and we both went back to our day jobs. Around 2012 I decided to take this a bit more seriously. I started reading loads of screenplay books, scripts and learning from scratch. This was what I consider my official start to writing screenplays. I also teamed up again with my friend and together we’ve produced a few more short films.
Q: To date, approximately how many screenplays have you written?
A: I’ve written around thirty short scripts, two features, two TV episodes and co-written a webseries.
Q: Which screenwriting competitions have you entered and seen through to a final result?
A: So far this year I have won a prize in the finals of the Wildsound Film Festival in Toronto, Canada for a fanfiction episode of Doctor Who that I wrote. I also reached the finals of the Reel Writers competition for a short script which received a top pick award. I’m currently in the semi-finals of the Eerie Horror Festival for a comedy/horror TV pilot. They should be announcing the finalists any day now. I also reached the semi-finals of Shriekfest and Scriptamation for a short script, but did not reach the finals in those.
Q: Approximately how many screenplays did you write prior to entering your first competition?
A: Not many, a handful at best. I wanted to get an idea of how I was progressing, something I could measure by. I entered a few competitions back in 2013 which did not get me anywhere at all, Most completely rejected my scripts. In 2014 I managed to get to the quarter and semi-final stages in a few which spurred me onward.
Q: Did the competition(s) offer feedback—notes, critique, etc.—on the script(s) you entered? If so, what was the quality of the feedback?
A: I’ve only been given free feedback in the Wildsound and Reel Writers competitions. Both were excellent, really useful. Some of the other competitions do offer such services at a price, but I’ve not tried those.
Q: Did any of the competitions you entered try to hit you up for pay-based services, such as script consulting, proofing, etc.?
A: Yes. Quite a few offer [fee-based] script reviews; some offer discounts on script development services and re-draft submission fees.
Q: If “yes” to the previous question, did you take advantage of any of these services? Was this a negative or positive experience?
A: I haven’t, no. I am highly suspicious of such services being offered under these circumstances. If I wanted to try out such a service, I would carry out my own research first. I would want to know who I was paying, their experience, and be confident [that they are] of industry standards with a positive reputation. I have found it difficult to gain such information from a film festival or competition, so when I've needed such a service, I’ve gone to a reputable company that I can research and confirm their validity.
Q: If you won or placed high in a competition, did it have any effect, positive or negative, on your career?
A: There has been no noticeable impact so far. I’ve not had any offers or been contacted by anyone who has been referred to me by my success in a competition. I do realize it is early days, relatively speaking. The Reel Writers competition for example, the press release for this only went out last week. All I know is I’m not giving up. I’m continuing writing, I’m entering more competitions and I am producing my own films. I just love what I’m doing too much to stop.
Q: What types of prizes (monetary and non-monetary) have you won from the screenplay competitions you’ve entered?
A: I’ve won as many digital laurels as I can eat! It seems easy to get one of those, they hand them out like candy. The prize from the Wildsound Festival was a professional actor table-read of the script, which they recorded and posted on YouTube, as well as their websites. The Reel Writers prize was discounts on entering next year’s competition and screenwriting services, plus they also send the script to several production companies.
Q: Other than any material rewards and/or valuable feedback, what have been the most satisfying aspects of winning a competition?
A: It’s the satisfaction of knowing my script is deemed decent enough to win something. My first few scripts were not even accepted in these festivals, now I’m getting through to qualifying stages and winning some prizes. It lets me know I’m on the right track but need to do more and keep on developing.
Q: Have you ever submitted one of your early screenplays into a competition? If so, is it something you now regret—and why?
A: No, there’s no regrets. This was the only way I was going to learn, to grow as a writer. A failure is not a failure for me as long as I learn an important lesson.
Q: Do you feel that adding "I won/placed high in the [name of script comp]" to query letters and pitches prompted any additional interest from agents, managers and/or production companies you queried?
A: I’ve not done that yet but I aim to in the future. Currently I’m building a portfolio of scripts, short stories, produced movies and awards. I’m putting together my own website to promote my work. I want to go on to sell scripts, books, produce features and TV shows. When I do, you can bet I’ll be using every achievement I can to try and improve my chances!
Q: Overall, what do you feel were the positive aspects of entering a screenplay competition?
A: The satisfaction of trying is an important milestone, it is a major achievement for me. I used to hide all my work on my PC and only show it to a few friends. I was afraid people would laugh at my feeble attempts, or steal my ideas. These fears crippled me for years. Entering competitions helped me face those fears and overcome my demons. For the good competitions, it’s been a great experience. You feel you are part of something creative, something positive. You feel involved, like your work really matters.
Q: Overall, what do you feel were the negative aspects of entering a screenplay competition?
A: Sometimes it feels like some of these competitions are just cash cows for the organizers. You don’t get any communication, no emails, little in the way of updates on the website and no explanation if your script is rejected. I feel some competitions are just there to take advantage of people desperate to break into the industry. However this is my responsibility. I should research the competitions more. I certainly do not enter any again if I am not happy with how they're run.
Q: What is your current status as a screenwriter?
A: At the moment this is simply a hobby, although it is my passion. I work full time to put food on the table and write in my spare time. Hopefully one day I can switch those around.
Q: Any parting comments, thoughts, or words of advice for screenwriters considering entering a competition?
A: Research, research and more research. Is the competition reputable? Does the theme or the competition’s past winners match the type of script you’ve written? What are your chances (i.e., if you are against thousands of skilled, veteran scriptwriters and this is your first entry, maybe consider a lower profile competition first)? Whatever you do, if you love writing, don’t give up. Keep on writing no matter what. One of my favorite screenwriting quotes is, "A professional writer is an amateur who didn't quit."