How to Make a Demo Reel for Actors
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actor in front of camerascreenwriter working on a scriptbusiness people discussing projectcloseup of a camera operatorfilm support crew on setacting teacher with students

How to Make a Demo Reel for Actors

Author: Eva Contis

Date: March 9, 2020

Reads: 38


Eva Contis is a New Orleans-based filmmaker and a Commercial Director at WAFilms with over 13 years of industry experience. She studied editing at California State University Northridge. Before long she became an Assistant Editor, then a Post-production Supervisor. She has edited narrative features, true crime and documentaries before she dove into directing.
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An Actor’s demo reel, also known as a show reel, is a video marketing tool that highlights your talent.

It demonstrates to Casting Directors and Agents that beyond your standout picture and resume, you have the acting chops to back them up. In short, it’s your calling card. Back in the day, all a Casting Director had to go by was a headshot and resume. If you were called in for an audition and considered for the part, they would put you through a screen test to see if you could act in front of a camera. These days, Casting Directors expect you to know how to act onscreen and video footage is an essential tool for getting booked. To put this in perspective, for every audition announcement, hundreds of resumes are submitted. It’s only natural for Casting Directors to start with submissions that have a demo reel attached. And guess what? On the biggest casting site, Breakdown Services, the Actors with demo reels are featured first. (For those of you who are new to acting, most audition announcements go through a website called Breakdown Services and they have a portal for Actors called Actors Access, where Actors post a profile which has their headshot, resume, and reel that pops up with every submission.)

A demo reel demonstrates that you are a professional. A good headshot doesn’t prove you can act, and even if your resume is chock full of recognizable movies, a resume doesn’t prove you can act, either. Now I bet you’re wondering, what if I sent in a taped audition? Doesn’t that show I can act? Yes, but that tells only part of the story. A taped audition is like a cold read and is light years away from the demands of working under pressure on a film set. The bottom line is that when Casting Directors go to Breakdown Services and look at submissions, chances are they will check out your reel before they consider calling you in. Put yourself in their shoes… if they call you in based solely on a picture and resume and you don’t deliver, or worse, they cast you and you don’t know how to work on a professional set, that’s wasted time and money. Their reputations are at stake. The flip side is if they call you in and you bomb an audition, a good demo reel can save you. Some people don’t audition well and a good demo reel can compensate for that.

Here’s what you need to know about making a demo reel:

  • How long it should be
  • How to get the footage
  • What you should put on your demo reel
  • Taylor it for the project
  • Highlight your work
  • What to do if you haven’t acted on screen
  • Including contact info
  • Keeping it updated

How Long It Should Be

A demo reel should be between one and a half to three minutes long. However, it should flow well and keep the viewer interested, otherwise three minutes could drag. You also want to avoid fast paced montage edits that don’t give enough time to evaluate your performance. In fact, you should avoid montages altogether. Other than looking cool, they don’t do the job of showcasing your talent unless you are highlighting drastic makeup or different looks.

How to Get the Footage

Let’s start with the assumption you have acted in a film or TV show (I will discuss other options below.) If you have been in a short film, you should call the Producer and ask them for your scene. You might have to wait until the film is complete but they should be able to provide you with a Quicktime file or Vimeo link you can download. If you have been in a commercial, movie or television show, the footage might be harder to track down. Hopefully, by this time you have representation and your Agent or Manager can help you get your hands on the footage. But if you don’t have an advocate you might have to search YouTube, which means waiting until the film or show is online.

What You Should Put on Your Demo Reel

This is a little tricky when you are just starting out. You might only have one scene or one project. If all you have is one scene, that’s better than nothing. Capitalize on it to get another gig so you can build your demo reel out. If you have several scenes from one project, choose the one or two that really demonstrate your range. If you have a larger body of work you should put your strongest scenes first, but that doesn’t mean put your bad stuff at the end. If you have grown as an Actor and your early work isn’t as good as your latest work, get rid of it. It doesn’t serve you anymore. It’s time to move on!

You also want to consider production value. The work should be professionally produced. The footage should be well lit and have cinematic value with good sound. It should not be a monologue in front of your iPhone! On the other hand, if you were an Extra in a big Hollywood film, it might have production value, but it’s not something you should put on your reel.

Taylor it for the Project

If you are submitting work for a character-driven drama you don’t want to showcase your sitcom work and vice versa. Keep your comedy and drama separate so Casting Directors don’t have to sift through unnecessary material to get to what they want to see.

Highlight Your Work

I can’t tell you how many demo reels I have seen from day players (people who have booked smaller speaking roles on a television series) who start their demo reel with a famous Actor. OK, yes, if you have played opposite a famous Actor, it does say something about your experience and your talent. You’re professional, you are a member of the Screen Actor’s Guild, and you can hold your own against star power. However, try to start with an image of yourself first. Your famous counterpart doesn’t need the press. This should be all about you. That also goes for unknown Actors in your scene. Viewers should not be confused with who they should be focusing on.

You should also cut down your scenes to get to your best performance. As a rule, each scene should be cut down to 30-45 seconds. We don’t need to see the story or understand the plot. We need to see if you are emotionally real and authentic. And that might even be a scene without any dialog.

What to Do if You Haven’t Acted in Anything Onscreen

Do not be discouraged! There are plenty of ways to make it happen. If you live near a film school, try to get into a student film. Shorts films are a great way to get started and right now short films are blowing up around the country. See if there is a Facebook page for independent filmmakers in your town or a local film office that has a pulse on up-and-coming filmmakers. Very often on these projects, you are only working for the credit and a copy of the film (and a meal), but if you get in a good project, it’s an opportunity to both learn what it’s like to be on a set and to get a piece to put on your demo reel. But before you say “yes” to just anyone, make sure the filmmakers are creating content that is good enough for a demo reel. There are plenty of hacks out there, so make some inquiries. Ask to see previous work of the Director or Cinematographer. Ask if they have a sound crew and if they are going to put the short through post-production. You have a right to ask these questions and filmmakers should be happy to assure you that it will be worth the time you are volunteering.

If that is out of the question, there are companies that will write and produce a demo reel for you. Though this isn’t a bad way to do things, I think that it should be a last resort. Acting is a skill and it’s bad enough to work for free; you shouldn’t have to pay to do it. But if you find an “acting for the camera” class and the benefit is that you also get a scene for your reel, go for it!

Including Contact Info

There are conflicting opinions on where you should put your contact info in a demo reel. Some say up front and some say at the end. I think it should be in both places. Reels that start with a headshot and name help me find the Actor in a scene and focus on them. Chances of me remembering the name after sifting through hundreds of photos and reels is slim, so I like to be reminded after the demo reel in case the performance grabbed my attention. That said, make sure your picture looks like you actually do on screen. It shouldn’t be a glamour shot.

Keeping It Updated

Another thing I have seen in a lot of demo reels is footage that is ten years or older. That’s not necessarily bad, but it makes the viewer wonder what you have been doing for the last ten years. You might have all kinds of things on your resume, but if it’s not on your demo reel, you might not appear professional. Unless you’ve reached the point in which you don’t have to audition anymore, you should be putting fresh content on your demo reel every chance you get.

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