The Evolving Demo Reel

I’ve written about demo reels many times over the years (check the archives). But in conversation with an actor last week, I realized I have not written about a trend that I’ve absolutely been talking about, and that’s the evolution of the demo reel from a linear presentation (like a trailer to a movie) to an à la carte selection of clips, which better show the folks casting your next gig that you can do what they need you to do, because you did it on a previous gig. They can experience this without being distracted by the other things you have done.

Blame the Internet. Once upon a time, there were THINGS delivered to the buyers: VHS cassettes, then DVDs, and now it’s a link that shows buyers what actors can do. And that means we’ve gone from putting a tape in a machine and pushing play — watching start to finish — to clicking a link and choosing what we need to see. This is what informs our very next action item. And that’s huge. That you — as an actor — can provide a potential buyer with an exact formula for how to cast you, how to understand your essence, how to GET YOU, is huge. It’s pretty dang empowering… but it means you must get over the old-school way of thinking about your reel.

Let me apologize right now for not having written about this — explicitly — sooner. I’ve certainly been talking about it. And it was, in fact, in one of the Self-Management for Actors Seminar discussions last week that I realized I owed y’all this column. Much has changed. Let’s get clear. (Oh, and to get very clear, I asked some rockstars to weigh in on this issue, and they did. So, brace yourself for the awesomeosity.)

A few months back, I was a panelist at a Hollywood Happy Hour event sponsored by Breakdown Services and CastingAbout at the Showbiz Software Store. Gary Marsh was also a panelist, and we spent quite a bit of time talking about reels. Because I use Breakdown Services for any breakdowns I put out, I know their deal: Actors can put up clips — not just full demo reels. I love that! Gary spent a bit of time talking about the right way to do this, so that casting directors are experiencing something that gets you closer to the role you’re meant to book (rather than having CDs experience something that just gets you eliminated from the running).

For the actor who understands how best to use this tool, this is incredibly empowering and gets you closer to the role faster… and isn’t that the goal?

Some thoughts from Gary:

Just think of the casting process. You get over 1000 submissions per role. You are on a deadline and are selecting actors. How long can you watch an actor’s reel (especially for episodic television) and why are you watching it? A: You don’t know the actor; B: You know the actor but you know him doing drama and you need to see him do comedy, etc. You are really looking at these clips to quickly determine whether to bring in the actor or not. Once you’ve made the decision you either select the actor or not. Nothing fancy, just efficient.

And on this issue from Dave Manship, owner of Edit Plus:

Effective demo reels today are not a “one-size-fits-all.” They are specific video tools chosen to get a specific result. Think of your demo as a set of the finest kitchen knives. Each has a use. There is probably one knife that is used 80% of the time, but when you need a boning knife, a paring knife, or a cleaver it makes the job easier if you have those available. Today’s demo reel should be thought of as a set of video tools.

Okay, so how do agents utilize the ability to show off à la carte clips most effectively? According to Gary:

When they are submitting, they can select just the clips they want casting to see when the reel is broken up into clips (and the actor has taken the time to label and create a description of the clip). Smart agents just send the clips that match the role they are submitting the actor for. That way, casting is watching relevant material. Think of it as the ability to create a custom reel for every submission.

What do actors need to know about best practices, in putting their clips online? Gary says:

The length should be what the relevant part of the scene is for that actor. We’re not talking context. Casting needs to see your face first when they are watching your clip, not the monologue of the lead actor, then you. Remember actors are marketing themselves not the person they are doing the scene with. It is an absolute must for actors to label and describe the scene. As a casting director you are casting the role of an attorney grilling a witness in court and you see a description such as Law & Order (played role of attorney badgering a witness). Okay, as the casting director, I want to bring in actors who know how to play that; I watch the scene and bang, the actor has an audition. If the clip/reel was labeled “Demo Reel,” well there’s just no attempt on the part of the actor to market what they do well and the actor loses and the casting director loses the opportunity to bring in the right actor.

Dave also has opinions on this issue:

There are really three types of demo reels or demo reel materials that an actor can make use of: a general demo reel, individual clips, and a custom reel. An actor should have a general demo for marketing to new reps and CDs that need to know the range of their work. This is something that could be posted at IMDb-Pro, at one’s website, and at Actors Access. It allows the actor to have professional, searchable online video presence. An actor should post individual clips to Breakdown Services/Actors Access. The clips should be no more than one minute long with specific descriptive naming that helps the CD know what they are about to watch. “Grey’s Anatomy clip” as a description doesn’t work. “Entitled Bitch” is a winner — especially if that is the character description they are looking for.

Of course, money is a consideration for everyone pursuing this great career, so I asked about pricing structures, just so everyone is aware of the difference in having one long demo reel up and having multiple clips up. Here’s what Gary says about how things work at Actors Access:

We don’t start the “clock” for every new clip, we take the total number of minutes of all clips and charge a flat $22 per minute for uploading and extracting the clips if necessary (not editing). This is a one-time charge, not an annual charge. Also, if you want to add a clip, you only pay for the clip, not a re-upload of an edited reel.

The use of clips/reels as part of the casting process involve having all the information available in one place for the casting director, it makes it easy for the casting director. I suggest that actors put their entire reel on their website if they have it so that when the time comes for the director to view the body of an actor’s work to get a sense of their range, the product is available in a place that makes sense and doesn’t cost the actor extra to post on Actors Access. Remember, clips used on Breakdown Express/Actors Access enhance the casting process. Reels have another use and are a great marketing tool as the casting process progresses to the final choices.

Dave also has some thoughts about the use of custom reels and pricing for this evolution in the way demo reels are served up:

An actor should make use of custom demos when appropriate. For higher-profile opportunities where you strategize with your reps to pitch you on a project because YOU ARE PERFECT, you need a custom reel. At EditPlus, we have created customized reels for many of our clients over the years, turning around a custom demo in a matter of hours. Our clients have benefited by booking the job over 70% of the time. There is a HUGE advantage to submitting a custom reel for the right projects. With the advances in technology we have created an online tool that allows actors to create a truly custom reel in a matter of seconds. The service is called The Custom Reel. The best performances of your career are archived online in your personal account. You drag and drop the content you want in the order that you want it to be viewed and submit your custom submission. It allows you to edit the order of your own material, in effect editing your own custom demo reel for each submission where you want that extra edge.

This may seem like more stuff for actors to spend their money on, but technology advances also retire outdated technology. No more hard copy DVDs ($5 or more each for DVDs that never get returned), no more postage and handling supplies ($2 or more each), and no more redundant billing for editing sessions where you are just changing the order of your clips or adding one and taking one off ($100 minimum). Technology advances are making the process better and giving the actor, the talent representatives, and casting directors better tools to support their work.

While I was at it, I asked about the length of reels, tech specs, and the ever-popular montage issue, since that always comes up when we’re discussing demo reels. In addition to thoughts from Dave and Gary, I’ve added in words from demo reel editor Robert Campbell, who shared a bit with me back in 2008, when I was putting together the current edition of Self-Management for Actors. First, here’s Dave’s opinion on hi-def:

Your reel doesn’t have to be hi-def (though some of your content may be hi-def). Hi-def video on the Internet is a bandwidth hog and since you cannot guarantee the connection speed that every viewer has, if you post a hi-def video (because you want the best quality possible) and the CD you have targeted has a slower connection, the video will stop and start and stop and start and… “awww, just forget about it. Next!”

Regarding clip length and respecting the viewers’ time, here are Dave’s thoughts:

Ten years ago the standard demo was five minutes long and showed a variety of your work to show range. Very few CDs have the time for “generals,” be they interviews or demos. It’s all about being specific. Instead of a general demo, it’s better to post your content as clips so you can be laser focused with your submissions. Today’s standard for the length of a clip for a single project is 30-60 seconds. And if your clip is 90 seconds it had better be AMAZING!!!

Gary underscores this truth:

Really, casting wants to hear what an actor sounds like and what they look like (as opposed to the picture that is a glamorous version of what they look like). Actors who understand the process are making sure that for the casting process they make their reel available in clip form rather than as a continuous reel. Remember to put yourself in the shoes of the casting director who is very busy and needs all your help to select you!

And now, about montages… here’s what Gary had to say:

What ever you do however, please please please, no montages! Montages are loved by editors but hated by casting when they need to see/hear you ASAP.

And here’s info from one editor who really dislikes montages (that’d be Robert — again, this is from Self-Management for Actors, and I just love it):

A Few Brief, Highly-Opinionated Views on Montages

  • They suck.
  • They do not equal range. Watching a bunch of quick clips of an actor doing a lot of random jumping, kissing, laughing, running, etc., does nothing to show you can believably convey a character’s emotional life.
  • Photo montages don’t demonstrate your skills. Just because there’s a picture of you with a sword doesn’t mean you can fence. (And if you’re getting an award for something athletic, the Olympic banner had better be in the background.)
  • There’s no way for the viewer to know how long they are. If you’re a casting director and you’ve got to look through 100 demo reels for two different roles, and each of them have just a 15-second montage, that’s 25 minutes wasted. Multiply that by ten more roles per project, and ten projects a year, and that’s 2500 minutes down the drain. Show the CD you’re a professional who respects her time and leave the montage on the cutting room floor.
  • One of the most infuriating things about montages is they frequently consist of clips from scenes that will be shown during the reel itself. This is the equivalent of handing in a ten-page term paper with two-inch margins all around, double-spacing, and 16-point Helvetica type. Have you ever met an English teacher who wasn’t wise to this trick?
  • They are an obvious attempt to steal the energy of the band, or song, and transfer it onto you. I call it trying to sell the sizzle, and not the steak. The problem is, you’re trying to sell sizzle to people whose job it is to sell sizzle.
  • They implicitly state: I have nothing worth watching so I’m going to try to delay you from seeing my work as long as possible.
  • If you absolutely have to have a montage, I strongly suggest putting it at the end. That way if the viewer doesn’t want to watch it, they can hit stop, and they won’t miss seeing any of your actual work.

Yes! Please! If you’re going to use a montage — I agree — throw it at the end of the reel. That’s just fine.

Finally, let me remind you that your demo reel answers all sorts of questions that your headshot and resumé do not. We get a quick sense of you, your vibe, the way you sound, how you connect with others, what to expect when you walk in for your audition. That’s all stuff we can GET very quickly, so be sure to start off strong. And replace older, less-exciting clips with newer, stronger material as it comes in. This clip presentation of your work (rather than the old-school, linear demo reel) makes that easier than ever. Embrace that! Like with most opportunities that are facing us in this new era of the entertainment industry, those who see everything as indication that this is an exciting time to try something new will rock it out.

Sure, keep an old-school, linear demo reel available for agents, managers, or anyone who wants a broad overview of what you can do, but offer up clips to the buyers out there who are telling you they need X, Y, and Z. Because you have a clip that shows you doing Z means you’ve just showed the buyer who needs Z right now that you can do that job. Showing them X and Y is less important at the moment they’re making fast decisions. Choose great material and label it accurately (and specifically). This all comes down to getting more and more specific about what you’re offering to your primary buyers. Don’t try to be everything to everyone… but with clips, you actually can have more range “out there” and just show what needs to be seen to the right people. You won’t talk us out of how to “get you” by overcrowding a single demo reel.

Awesome, right?

Thank you, Gary, Dave, and Robert for the information above. Here are links to these great guys’ companies, for more information on what they do.

Actors Access, Breakdown Services, Eco-Cast
EditPlus, AirCheck
Quick Nickel

Are *you* using clips to help promote your actor brand? Share some ninja tips in the comments below.


Bonnie Gillespie is living her dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. Wanna work with Bon? Start here. Thanks!


Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/001354.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.

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6 Comments

  1. Stennar Strom October 15, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    Bonnie!
    Fantastic info, and perfect timing for me.
    I’m editing and experimenting with demo reels now – so this is an inspiring idea to add separate specific clips to my portfolio.
    I’m currently gathering DVDs from producers for two recent projects I just filmed.

    Once I get those I can already create three separate clip categories!
    Already brainstorming, I’ve got “The cute nerd and the ladies”, “Physical comedy antics”, and “Cheerful goofball.”

    Rawkin’ Cheers and Cheeseballs!

    Reply
  2. Bonnie Gillespie Bonnie Gillespie October 15, 2013 at 4:47 pm

    I love it! Those are great descriptions and so filled with RICH detail, which is awesome, if you’re a buyer, looking to see, “Does the actor deliver exactly what I need?” as you’re skimming through submissions. Rock on, rockstar! πŸ˜€ Stay cheesy!

    Reply
  3. Deb October 22, 2013 at 6:32 pm

    Hi! This is such great info, especially about the clips vs. the reel. I’ve never seen the Breakdown Services interface from the casting person’s perspective, so a quick question: with the clips, is it necessary to have each say my name and contact info (as you might have at the beginning or end of the reel), or can the clip just be the clip? In other words, is each clip already attached to my image/name on the submission screen? Just wondering how clearly it is presented.

    Many thanks!

    Reply
  4. Bon October 22, 2013 at 11:59 pm

    GREAT question, Deb. Definitely, since it’s a showcase of clips from *within* your profile, you don’t need to include your name, contact info, etc., like you would on a reel you’re posting at YouTube. Certainly, you can ALWAYS include that stuff at the *end* of the reel, for safety, but because you’re hosting these clips *at* your Actors Access profile, you’re cool without it in there, unless you’re also posting the clips at YouTube or Vimeo.

    Hooray! πŸ˜€ For a great example of how to label clips at Actors Access, if you’re in LA or NY, attend a free CastingAbout talk (which they put on regularly), as one of the co-founders shows off his profile from within Actors Access, so you can see his labeling (*and* what it is the buyers see, from their end). Cooooool.

    Reply
  5. nikiva dionne April 25, 2014 at 10:36 pm

    Uhmmm, sheesh u r like my fairy career mother. I literally uploaded a new reel to AA, went live today, and I was totally about to label all my clips w/ the project names. Sooooo glad I saw this article! Can’t wait to step into the ‘NEW era’ w/ clips on AA. yayeee!! Thanks again Bon ur purpose is so necessary and appreciated.

    Reply

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