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:

 

Reason 1.

 

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.

 

Reason 2.

 

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

AWESOME

 

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.

 

Tip 1.

 

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.

 

Tip 2.

 

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.

 

Tip 3.

 

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.

 

Tip 4.

 

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.

 

Tip 5.

 

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.

 

Tip 6.

 

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.

 

Tip 7.

 

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!