One of an actor’s most essential marketing tools is the demo reel. Yet no one element of the actor’s marketing arsenal has so many variables as the demo reel. How long should it be? Can a theatrical reel include commercials? Should it include a montage? How can you get the footage promised to you? Does scene work produced just for the sake of a demo reel count? How much should you be prepared to spend on a demo reel? And, after all of that, will anyone really watch it?
A demo reel is basically a trailer for the feature that is you. As you make your decisions about content, length, and distribution, make sure you advertise yourself accurately and in such a way that leaves the viewer wanting more. It’s all about making sure the viewer knows how to cast you. Make that clear, from start to finish.
Common Sense Tips About Demo Reels
Unsolicited demo reels are generally discouraged. Make contact with the producer, director, casting director, agent, or manager you are hoping will view your demo reel and ask whether it would be okay to drop off or mail in a demo reel. That way, when you do submit your tape, you may refer to it as “requested material” and thank the casting director in your letter for her interest in your tape.
When mailing a reel, package it securely so that it doesn’t get too banged-up in transit and take it to the post office to ensure you’ve included enough postage. Enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope (with the same amount of postage) for the reel’s return. Industry execs who do accept unsolicited demo reels (and that’s not the majority of them, by any means), prefer to receive reels with packaging for the tapes’ safe return. If you can help them to get your reel back to you, they’ll usually do so (and perhaps even share feedback. Some actors have enclosed comment cards just for that purpose).
Don’t highlight someone else’s performance in your reel. There are many tales of actors who have been cast from other actors’ demo reels. Make sure, when selecting material to include, that you choose scenes in which your performance is the focus. If your partner’s work is stellar and cannot be edited out without compromising the scene, make sure your partner is not someone of your type or category. Why should your reel put you out of a job?
Generally, commercials do not belong on a theatrical reel, but if a combination is the only way for you to fill two or three minutes on a reel, put your commercials together, after fading to black once your theatrical material is over. Do not try to “break up” your theatrical work with your commercials. That sort of transition is jarring and generally considered unprofessional by both commercial and theatrical casting directors and agents.
Lead off with your best material and include work that shows your range. Highlight your specialty and never use material more than two years old. Just like a headshot, your demo reel footage should be updated regularly.
What Editors Say About Demo Reels
Rob Ashe, with eight years of demo reel editing to his credit, first began editing reels when he moved to Los Angeles after having worked extensively as an actor in Orlando. “In my first three meetings, people asked for my demo reel. I wasn’t required to have tape in Orlando, so I knew I needed to know what tape was, first of all. I started going around town to see what I liked and what I didn’t like. I picked up Back Stage West and called around to find out what services editors were providing. Then I figured out what I could do differently,” Ashe chronicled.
With an eye for what would best serve the actor, Ashe developed a successful editing business. I asked him to break down the issues on the minds of actors hoping to develop their demo reels, starting with reel length. Ashe explained that filmmakers are far more patient when watching reels than agents or casting directors. “Your reel can be a little longer [than three minutes], if you’re sending it out to directors,” he said.
Other tips from Ashe include the following: “Open with your highest paid gig. If you have a scene with a name actor, include it, no matter what. If all you have are student films or DV work, keep the reel under three minutes, total.”
As for what you should bring to your editor, in terms of raw material, preference seems to skew toward Beta SP-versions of the work (although footage can become grainy during transfer). Digibeta, while higher-priced, holds the best depth of color and lasts longer than other media. The half-inch VHS copy talent usually receives in “copy, credit, meals” arrangements is already a second-generation copy of the work. When that is edited onto a reel, it becomes third-generation. Dubbing takes it down to fourth, and so on. While it may take quite a bit of follow-up and persistence (and perhaps cost) to get a copy from the master, the final product will be far superior in quality.
What is the reel used for? Marketing. A demo reel is used primarily to showcase an actor’s on-camera skills. According to Allen Fawcett, 15-year veteran demo reel producer (1500 reels shot from scratch) and editor (with over 7000 individual clients ranging from newbies to stars), “An actor needs a reel to prove he can do what he says he can do. In TV-land, a reel gets you an agent. There is no time for TV people to cast from a reel. In the film world, the reel is everything. Film people have more time to watch reels and more interest in seeing them.”
Fawcett, who teaches on-camera technique and produces demo reels from his studio, describes being on-camera as “golden time. It is impossible to spend too much time in front of a camera doing dialogue and calibrating yourself to being inside of frame, hitting your mark, learning that you cannot do the things you’d do on stage when you’re on camera. You’ll learn that you blink excessively, lick your lips too much, things that make you say, ‘Oh my God, I’m not watchable!’ Those are things you should learn as early as possible, so you can begin to eradicate bad habits. A set is not a school. A set is somewhere that money is being burned by the second,” Fawcett explained.
It is important, when producing a demo reel, to know your goals. Are you trying to land an agent or manager? Are you hoping to move up to another level in your career? Are you trying to get from co-star to lead? “If your goal is to get an agent,” Ashe assessed, “student films are fine. Agents just want to see if you are castable.” Fawcett concurred, adding: “Agents are looking at your reel asking, ‘Could I have made any money off of this person in the past 30 days, based on what I’ve been seeing in the Breakdowns and what I’m seeing on this reel?’ A reel shows your potential for booking, even if it’s a reel made up of produced scenes. It’s about risk assessment.”
As for montages — those little clips of the actor in various roles, set to music and edited together in rapid succession — opinions vary widely. “Agents like montages. Casting directors hate them,” opined Fawcett. “Agents can see right away if there’s a conflict in their stable and can get rid of the tape after ten seconds. Montages are not as useful for casting directors and are seen as a waste of their time,” he continued. In fact, some casting directors I have interviewed suggest placing a montage at the end of your reel, so that they can see your work first and your looks last. Ashe agreed that montages are a matter of taste, and his taste is pro-montage. “A lot of people say it’s a no-no, but I feel that a ten-second montage psychologically gives people a second to sit down, breathe, get an emotional feel for what they’re going to get. I like to put music down that matches the personality of the actor,” Ashe explained.
So, how long should your demo reel be? My research shows actors have found success with reels as short as two minutes, and with reels as long as eight minutes. Industry preference tends to run in the three-to-five minute range. “I have never heard a casting director, a manager, or an agent say that a demo reel was too short,” Fawcett commented. “Less is more.”
And how much should demo reel editing run? “If you’re doing a basic reel with your name and your scenes and you’ve come in with your tapes all cued up and ready to go, more than $80 for editing is a rip-off,” Ashe insisted. “If I’m doing some major rearranging of clips and spending more than ten hours on it, editing will go into the $200 range. A redo — for adding a clip or taking one out — I’ll do for $30.”
As for fully-produced scenes from original scripts, with direction, lighting, sound, sets, props, and editing — the type of full-service reel production Fawcett provides — the cost for four original scenes (40 to 50 seconds each) is $1500. This includes consultation, instruction, and editing of the finished product.
Is there value to a demo reel comprised of produced scenes? “Tape is a marketing piece,” Fawcett explained. “The main purpose of a reel is for people to know how to hire you, how you are cast,” Ashe contributed. “Even if your reel is one [produced] scene and one student film, if it’s great footage, it says, ‘This is how I look, this is how I act, and this is how I am on camera.'”
What Casting Directors Say about Demo Reels
Some casting directors welcome unsolicited demo reels, others abhor them. It is important to do research before going to the expense of sending tapes out. For example, do not send an unsolicited demo reel to Big Ticket TV’s Senior Vice President of Talent Development and Casting Donna Ekholdt, CSA. “It’s like crashing an audition. It’s an unscheduled appointment with me. Send your headshot and resume with a request to send me tape. If I’m interested, I’ll ask to see it,” she said.
On the other end of the spectrum are feature film CSA casting directors Donald Paul Pemrick and Dean E. Fronk. “We’ll put our feet up and watch a bunch of them at a time. But don’t send a scene from acting class, or a performance at your sister’s bat mitzvah. Include three to four scenes and tell me what show I’m about to see. Also, include some credits, especially the directors’ names,” Pemrick suggested. “If you’ve worked with someone I know, I’d like to ask them about your work.” “It’s a very small town,” Fronk added. “We know those indie directors. And, if you want, send over a work-in-progress and let us tell you how to make it a better reel.”
Casting directors who do not want to see unsolicited demo reels include indie film casting director Adrienne Stern; Emmy Award-winning casting director April Webster, CSA; Young & the Restless casting exec Marnie Saitta; and award-winning feature casting director Debra Zane, CSA. In fact, Zane commented, “An unsolicited tape is a little tricky, especially if it’s not sent for a specific role. We’re so busy looking at tapes we’ve requested and then editing together tapes of actors to send to directors and producers, there’s just no time to look at an unsolicited demo. It’s not a top priority,” she explained.
Casting directors who specifically told me they welcome demo reels include Michael Donovan, CSA/CCDA (films, commercials, theatre); Patrick Baca, CSA (films, MOWs, pilots); and feature film casting partners Mike Fenton, CSA, and Allison Cowitt, CSA. Fenton underscored the importance of having a demo reel, noting that it must be made up of work you list on your resume. “Don’t go to a corner production house and have a demo tape made. You’re just throwing money away,” he said. His partner added, “If you have to include a commercial on your demo reel, that’s better than nothing. Documentaries are fine. Industrials are okay. We need to see you on film,” Cowitt summarized.
The head honchos at CBS and NBC enjoy watching actors’ demo reels. Senior Vice President of Talent and Casting for CBS, Peter Golden, CSA, explained that a demo reel is more representative of what to expect from an actor. “I don’t judge an actor on just their experience in the room [during a casting session]. That’s such an uncomfortable setting for so many actors. That’s why you must have tape. If you don’t audition well, your most valuable tool becomes one great scene, even from a student film.” NBC’s Executive Vice President of Talent and Casting Marc Hirschfeld, CSA, agreed, adding a note about the importance of timing and variety. “I want nice, tight, short pieces that show the different things you can do, not three scenes of you being a hooker or a cop or a nurse,” he requested.
CSA casting director-turned-director Ellie Kanner stressed the value of good tape. “You must have a demo reel,” she insisted. “However, bad tape is worse than no tape. So, unless your tape is of broadcast quality, with good writing and talented actors playing with you, don’t use it. Remember that the tape could be the last thing a producer sees on you,” Kanner warned.
Tips for Happy Reeling
Work to get copies of your on-camera work. Build relationships with the people most likely to be able to provide copies while you’re on the set. If you’re working on a commercial, speak with a representative from the ad agency. Exchange business cards and make sure to stay in touch, asking for a copy of the spot even if it never airs. If you’re working on a student film, perhaps get the name of the student filmmaker’s professor. Many times, a request of the professor will aid your quest to get a copy of the student film, when your requests of the student filmmaker go ignored. With film, work with the production company. With episodic television, have a video service record the episode as it airs, if you haven’t been able to get an advance copy of your footage. At the very least, set up your VCR or TiVo at best quality and acquire your tape on your own. Having copies of your work is your right as a performer.
Show up to your reel editing appointment with all of your tapes cued up and ready to go. Review the clips with the editor to make sure that you have a shared vision of the image you are trying to market with your reel. Plan the flow of the reel, from segment to segment, and decide on stylistic elements such as title cards and credits, music, and whether or not you will use a montage. Decide on the number of copies you will need, and if you need more than a few, you may find that it is more cost-effective to utilize a dubbing facility than your reel’s editor for that facet of the process.
Make sure the material you use in your reel is really good (technically and artistically). Although we hope that agents, managers, and casting directors will add the impression your demo reel leaves on them to information they already have about you — from your stage performances, your resume, and any prior auditions you’ve had with them — many times, the last impression you have on industry professionals is the only one they’ll retain. Therefore, if you are providing a demo reel, it should be at least as impressive as your last encounter, if not far superior.
Finally, remember that everyone was a beginner at some point. Don’t rush to get a demo reel together if what you need to be building up is your resume.
Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/000290.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.