Last month, I was a judge for the Inaugural Reel Actors Film Festival. I’d long been planning to revisit my two previous columns on demo reels, but the act of sitting down and making notes during a couple of hours of full-on, concentrated demo reel watching inspired me to make this the week I finally did that. I haven’t changed my opinion about the importance of demo reels (high), the best length for demo reels (short), and the true purpose of demo reels (to leave us wanting more, after showing us how to cast you), but I have absolutely had a few shifts in thought that I’d like to share with you. Also, I have now seen some interesting trends in demo reel presentation that I think could benefit you, when you next head to the editor (or your trusty Mac with Final Cut Pro installed).

Check Your Demo Reel for These Sins

Highlighting someone else’s performance instead of your own. If you must choose scenes in which someone else plays the hero, remember that your editor can help you edit the scene so that it is all about you. YOU are the hero in your demo reel, even if you weren’t in the original scene. I have seen some amazing reels in which it seriously looks like Dr. McDreamy only exists to tell the nurse, “I agree. You’re right,” in an all-about-her version of the scene. It’s awesome to show the world that you’ve worked with the biggest actors in the biz. But your reel isn’t about getting them a job or maintaining the essence of the scene as-seen-on-TV. It’s about getting you more work.

Showing too much range. Yes, you want to show your range. But to a casting director, you want to show your range within your dominant type. An agent may want to know how many different ways you can be marketed, but a casting director only ever wants to know that you are precisely right for this specific role at this exact moment in time. If your reel has you all over the map (in terms of type), consider recutting a version for casting directors, so that we see you as the perfect candidate for the role you’re most likely to nail.

Pulling out the scrapbooks. Seriously. Sometimes watching demo reels is like watching home movies with someone else’s family. Interesting to see what you looked like ten years ago? Maybe. Relevant to getting you a job today? Nope. Not even a little bit. Look, I totally get wanting to keep “old stuff” on the reel or resumé. Especially when there’s some “way back when” footage that makes you personally proud. But when we see your decades-old material (no matter how wonderful it is) there is very little that any casting director can do beyond offer up an, “Awww. That was cute. I remember Moonlighting. That was a great show.” So what? Your award-winning character from back in the day ain’t gonna help you get cast today.

Showing too little footage. I love SpeedReels and the minute-long clips on ActorsAccess. I love short-and-sweet reels on actors’ websites. I think they rock. But if I’m taking the time to look at a hard-copy reel (DVD or VHS), I want two to three minutes. I know I’ve previously mentioned that no one wants to see a longer reel (and for most actors’ reels, that’s still entirely true), but I do believe that a hard-copy reel should be longer than the sixty-second clip that you use online. Just like you don’t put your whole resumé on a postcard, you don’t have your whole reel on one of these minute-clips. It’s a great online marketing tool, but the “real reel” should come in around three minutes.

Including work that isn’t on your resumé. If we see that you have ten principal roles in your work history, when we’re reviewing your resumé, we’re probably going to expect that some of that work is going to be on your tape. I always find it a little odd to pop in a demo reel and not see footage that is among the best-looking credits listed on an actor’s resumé. I mean, if you’ve done a top-of-show guest-star on an episode of Nip/Tuck, why aren’t you including it on your reel? Could it be that you weren’t really a guest-star? Don’t get us thinking about what you might be fudging on your resumé. If you’re listing it, get the tape and add it to your reel.

Confusing us during the first clip. Unless I know whose reel I’m popping in (and when we’re gathered in a producer meeting, watching a few dozen reels at a time, that’s not so likely), your first scene starring you and five other people your age and general type is just going to frustrate me. I have actually had a director sit with me in a reel-watching meeting who said, when the second clip began, “Oh! We were supposed to be watching that guy?!? I thought this was the other actor’s reel!” And by then, he was trying to figure out how to find the actor who stole the first scene from the actor whose reel we were watching! If you insist upon starting off your reel with a scene starring you and anyone with whom we might confuse you (keeping in mind that we may not have your headshot with us when we’re watching the reels), please at least have an opening shot of your headshot or a super-brief montage so that we know which actor to watch, in that first scene.

Leaving out contact information. I know, I know… you know all about proper labeling of your demo reel. On the reel, on the packaging. Blah, blah, blah. Wait! Have you ever considered editing your contact information INTO the reel? That title screen with your name on it is a great place to include an agency logo or your phone number, website address, and union affiliation. And if you have an end-credits screen, put your contact information there too. This is one way to guarantee that — even if your demo reel’s label falls off, gets smeared away, wears off, or becomes separated from its packaging — we can still find you!

Having great material… but at really poor quality. Most of the reels that I love but can’t bring myself to call “great” fall into this category. Their content is fantastic. Brilliant use of a music bed beneath the material, lovely editing, consistently strong performances in clip after clip, phenomenal range within primary type, not too long, contact info edited right into the footage… and the technical quality of the reel just sucks. It’s either a fourth-generation dub, out-of-sync DVD, or it’s visually pixilated to the extent that it will only ever look good in a tiny corner of a laptop screen. Listen, if you’re going to spend time and money to put together a demo reel, at least be sure the elements that are within your control are tight. Even if you’re the best actor since Meryl Streep, if your reel starts popping and hissing at me in the first twenty seconds, I’m not even going to bother watching the rest. It’s just too painful, sometimes.

Trends in Demo Reels

It’s time to go non-linear, folks. Think about it. Most demo reels are being burned to DVD today, so that means we are popping the DVD into our computer or DVD player and choosing from a menu. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THAT! If you have some amazing commercial stuff that you’ve never felt comfortable editing into your theatrical reel, this non-linear presentation of material is fantastic news! You can now have a menu of choices for your audience. If you have so much comedy footage that you’d like to separate it out from the dramatic roles you’ve played, this option rocks for you! And if you’ve always wanted to include your standup comedy or on-stage work with an improv troupe but felt it just didn’t “go” with a standard reel, offer it up on your menu and let the viewers decide what we want to see (and in what order). Definitely continue to include a menu item of “just watch the reel” so that we can choose to watch it, start to finish, like in the good ol’ days; but think of the possibilities that open up to you, in terms of presentation, when you leave the navigating up to the viewer! One-time child actors with decades-old material who are making a return to acting after college can use this option to share some “back in the day” or “just for fun” footage. Include bloopers, outtakes, credits, montages, anything that you would normally leave off a reel. We’ll watch it if we want to and it’ll show us a lot more about your personality!

This non-linear presentation also helps with the “work in progress” situation most actors face, with their demo reels. How many times have you come back from the editor with your brand new reel and then, finally, received a copy of work you did on a film the year before? And it’s perfect. It’s gorgeous. And it’s going to cost you an arm and a leg in re-edits to your reel. Well… if you’ve chosen non-linear presentation, it’s only ONE chapter of your reel that needs to be recut. Or, heck, just go back and add this new footage on as “bonus footage” or “this just in” so that we know you’ve not put this into your official reel yet, but we can still see the goods. The options are limitless, when you go non-linear.

Remember that the purpose of your demo reel is to inform us in a way that your headshot or resumé alone cannot. Sure, I can see what type you are from looking at your headshot (assuming you look like your headshot, but that’s another issue altogether) and I can get a sense of your body of work from the credits, training, and skills listed on your resumé. But it’s your demo reel that acts as a pre-audition, really. It shows me how you look on-screen, lets me hear how you sound, and provides a sense of you that I can’t necessarily get from a photo and resumé. To that end, choose clips that are relevant to how you are marketed today. A reel that comes with a note attached, saying, “I don’t really look like this anymore. I’ve lost weight and changed my hair, but the acting is good, so I hope you’ll like it,” just isn’t terribly helpful. Sure, I may enjoy the reel, but it’s not going to help you get an audition today.

Have consistent sound from clip to clip (use a music bed beneath if you need to help ease some otherwise jarring transitions from one piece to the next), keep the clips short enough to make us want to see more (and re-edit as necessary so that your scenes are all about you), always include your contact information within the footage somehow, and when you have two minutes of excellent material… STOP! Do not feel that you have to hit three minutes (or, God forbid, even five) just to show us everything you’ve ever done. We’d rather love your reel and want to watch it again to see more than find ourselves getting bored during that last scene, in which you’re showing us more of the same stuff you did better in the first clip anyway.

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 Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.

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