Creating a great demo reel
Breaking Through to Your Big Break
Why every aspiring actor needs to make a high-quality demo reel their top priority
The US television and film industry is one of the most competitive job markets in
the world. So much so that it’s still considered “a dream job” by your average person. But
apart from talent, good looks, and a signature smile, what does it take to break in and be
successful in this industry? Undoubtedly, the single most important success factor for a
new actor’s or actresses’ portfolio is their demo reel. Maybe you’re heard this referred to
as a sizzle reel or a show reel at times. Whatever you’d like to call it, the basic idea is the
same – a demo reel is a compilation of your on-screen work from television, film,
commercials, and even the stage, and is your best shot to show potential agents, directors,
and producers your capabilities as an actor.
Think you’ve got what it takes but maybe you are still on the fence about making a
demo reel? Here are some reasons why you most definitely still need one, and some tips
for making it special:
Don’t remain invisible!
First and foremost, you need to consider that in most cases, having a reel is a
baseline criterion for even being looked at by a casting director. With potentially dozens, if
not hundreds, of applicants for just one role in a production, busy filmmakers need to
know in advance which candidates have at least been on camera before.
Just imagine your potential casting director is this guy:
Get the idea? Industry people have no time to waste and having or not having a demo reel
tells them a lot. Having one shows that you can work with people and that at least
somebody out there thought you were a good fit for a role. Remember, this is before we
are even talking about the content of your reel – the most important reason to have a
demo reel is to simply make yourself visible (in a literal sense) to showrunners and
producers. You don’t want to be asked if you have one and be forced to shake your head
no. No matter how good you are or what your acting credentials might be, without a reel,
know that many promising opportunities will simply pass you by. Roles that could have
(should have!) gone to you are going to no talent hacks other people instead.
It's your chance to wow them!
The second reason you must have a show reel is the reason that probably sprang to
mind first when you started reading this: it is a prime showcase for your unique talent!
It’s your first, best, and probably only chance to sell yourself to the deciders of a potential
gig. Next, we’ll talk about the differences between a demo reel and a great demo reel.
True Romance (1993)
Having no demo reel is bad...
Having a demo reel is good
Having a good demo reel is GREAT
Having a great demo reel is
Now that you get why you need a show reel, you’re probably The Rock-level
pumped about making your own. As simple,exciting, and maybe just a bit scary as it
sounds, there are some crucial things to consider before you begin.
Keep it short and sweet
Let’s say you have plenty of material to work with for your demo reel, you lucky duck.
First off, remember to keep it compact. You should use clips that are around half a minute
each, with the whole reel featuring about three to five clips. So, you’re aiming for a
runtime between one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half minutes. Check your ego at the door
Easy, tiger! Read on before you jump in
and cut that reel down if you’ve edited it together and it’s running over on time. For the
effect you want to achieve – that all-important wow factor – about a couple of minutes in
length is optimal. Any longer than that and you’re like the Oscar-recipient whose
acceptance speech has rambled on too long...so exit stage left before the orchestra starts
playing. Consider that a casting director has a lot of reels to watch; you need to make a
strong impression and leave them wanting more. You want your demo reel to resonate
like theatrical preview to a summer blockbuster – long enough to hook you, but not long
enough for the feeling of excitement that you get from being hooked to fade away. There
is a point of diminishing returns at which giving away more of the plot, or seeing more
views of the characters, or hearing more snappy dialogue will detract from the
anticipation of seeing it.
Put your best foot forward
When trying to make the most memorable impression you can, saving your best for
last is not the way to go. Start your demo reel as strong as possible, with your very best
performance up front. Your show reel’s two-minute run-time may not seem like long to
you, but a casting director may not watch anything beyond the first clip if they see
something they like, or even dislike about you.
Use clips that show you
Don’t worry that your work in the past (what’s on the show reel) doesn’t resemble the
description of the potential role; the most important thing is that it represents you and
your strengths as an actor. When deciding what clips to use for your reel, your
performance is the most important thing. That seems obvious butcan be surprisingly
easy for a new actor or actress to forget. So, don’t prioritize a clip just because of the
quality of the scene overall or the prestige of a particular role if it doesn’t showcase your
talents as well as a clip of you from something less prestigious. For example, maybe you
got your break in a network sci-fi series as an unnamed crewmate and your big line is
“Uhh...Captain...” which you utter just before the entire ship gets eaten by a massive
CGI space shark. Would you want that to be your lead-in if you also happen to have
played Judas in a low budget film adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar? Similarly, maybe
you scored a few lines as a waitress taking an order at a coffee shop, but the drama and
intensity of the scene is carried by the dialogue of the customers you’re serving. That is
certainly not bad to have in your demo reel but think hard if the clip best exemplifies you
in particular and if it should come before something else that does.
Make it look professional
On the one hand, your demo reel does not need to look like it was shot for Imax by
Michael Bay. But on the other hand, if your clips look like they were shot on a potato, you
can’t expect your reel to sizzle. Think film 101: the camera should be steady and in focus,
and the sound quality and lighting should let you be seen and heard. This is essential.
Otherwise, that memorable monologue you gave just before passing away from a rare
heart condition will not have the kind of emotional resonance you were shooting for.
While casting directors know that everyone starts somewhere, the mental impression
made by very unprofessional looking clips can’t be just shaken off once it’s there.
You can improvise if you don’t have a lot of experience
If you’re just starting out, you may simply not have enough work to put together a
demo reel. This is the case for a lot of new actors and can feel like a catch-22. But there are
plenty of workarounds if you’re proactive. Here are just a few options:
Just as you’re trying to break into acting, other people are trying to break into
filmmaking and cinematography. Student films are a great place to start, as are
collaborative efforts with other actors and aspiring writers.
Audition tapes are perfectly acceptable material for your demo reel. After all, it
showcases your acting talent while at the same time presenting you as a serious,
professional actor who is doing the leg work in the industry to make their
career a success.
Hire a professional company to help you put together some clips. From having
you say a few lines with a slate to giving you the chance to work with other
actors and a crew. Old-school purists may frown but remember the very first
rule of having a demo tape. Be seen acting. These “faked” scenes for demo reels
are standard practice, and as you accumulate a successful body of organic
work, you can replace them in your reel.
Use recent material only
Don’t use material that’s older than a couple of years. This is a big one. Your demo
reel is meant to show that you are actively working in the industry. A clip from 5 years
ago tells whoever watches it that you aren’t hungry enough to proactively pursue your
craft. On top of that, you don’t want to catfish your casting director with a clip of you
when you were younger, thinner, or better looking. Bear in mind that casting directors
are usually looking for an age range and a type to match a particular role, not just a good
actor. If they call you in based on one aspect of your physical appearance and they get
another, don’t expect them to be calling you for a second audition. It’s simply a no-no
and will put a bad taste in the mouth of industry decision makers.
Don’t force it
Last but certainly not least: if your show reel isn’t finished yet, it isn’t finished, full stop.
You can’t make it happen any sooner, but you could damage your chances of becoming
successful if you rush it. Since your demo reel will be the most important determining
factor in the early years of your career, and the only thing casting professionals will know
you by, it should be looked at by you as both a continuing work in progress and the
absolute best you have to offer. Now get out there and break a leg!