PART I: Purpose of a Demo Reel
With every pile of DVDs, VHS and miniDV tapes that an actor brings me to edit into a demo reel, comes a long list of questions: How long? How many? Is this good? Should I have an all-comedy or all-drama reel? What should be first? What about a montage? A menu? Theatrical vs. commercial vs. hosting? What do agents/managers, casting directors, directors, and producers want?
Cause and Effect
These are all very good questions, but they are all "result" oriented. That is, the actor’s focus is on, "What do I need to do to get a job?" Yes, the ideal result of someone viewing your demo reel should be that they pick up the phone to give you an audition or invite you in for a meeting. This is understandably a great, big, huge deal in an actor’s career, it is nonetheless, the wrong mindset. The right mindset when assembling your demo reel is from the perspective of the decision makers: the agents/managers, casting directors, directors, and producers. To do that you must first consider the purpose of a demo reel: lessening fear.
The most important thing to keep in mind is this: your demo reel has nothing to do with you. At all. Period. Yes, it’s you on the screen, and it’s your work, and it’s your name in the credits, but your demo reel is much, much more about the solution you are providing to industry decision-makers. What’s their problem? They need actors who can act, and act at a professional level.
The inestimable screenwriter William Goldman once wrote that in Hollywood "nobody knows nothing," and this is all-important to keep in mind when preparing your reel. Everybody wants to be close to the fire, but no one knows how to get there, or more importantly what decisions will keep them there. Agents and managers can’t keep their businesses open without actors who are already both talented and professional. A casting director doesn’t want to send a lump to see the director because she’s afraid the director will fire her. The director doesn’t want to cast a lump because he’s afraid it’ll tank his movie, and he’ll be back directing dinner theater in Jupiter, Florida. The producer just wants the cameras to start rolling before the money runs out.
Surprisingly, decision makers really only need to see three things from a demo reel:
- That you look like your headshot. This sends the clear message, "Yes, I’m a professional, and I know what I look like and how my audience perceives me." This also tells casting directors right away if you’re right for the role they’re casting at that moment.
- That you can act. I always ask my clients, "How long does it take you to decide if someone is good looking?" The answer is generally somewhere between an instant and a moment. Deciding if someone has talent takes about the same amount of time. This is why you should nearly almost always start with your best work (I’ll discuss the rare exception in a later installment). Start with the clip where you look prettiest, or you’ve got the most famous person opposite you, and your best work may never be seen because they’ve already decided you’re not good enough.
- That there’s something more interesting–call it charisma or spark or TV "Q"–about you than everyone else they’ve looked at. Actually, this last one isn’t "technically" needed, it’s just really, really, really nice to see.
A good demo reel sends the message, "Relax. I can and will carry my end of the rope." To an agent, manager, or casting director it says, "Yes, I am a professional, and no, I won’t embarrass you." To the director and producers it says, "The studio, the DP, the union reps, and your A-list stars will all be contributing to your going prematurely gray, but I won’t be one of your worries."
Alleviating fear should be the primary goal for your demo reel, and you shouldn’t make one if it can’t serve this purpose. If you haven’t got the material; if the production values are really, really bad, and the dialogue is worse; if all you have is a 30-second scene shot entirely in a medium two-person frame, and your co-star makes a reality TV has-been look like Laurence-freakin’-Olivier… wait. If you hand someone a reel like this, don’t be surprised if you never, ever, hear from them.
If it has to be perfect, where does that leave me?
Now at this point you’re probably thinking, "Hey, the last two films I did had a budget of 50 bucks. Combined. Not even Robert Rodriguez can achieve perfection with 50 bucks." Well, contrary to all the kvetching at the coffee shops, there aren’t a lot of stupid people in positions of responsibility in Hollywood. If you’re at the point in your career where you need a demo reel, they know you’re not going to have 10 minutes of brilliant, perfectly framed and lit scenes from some of the seminal movies of the 21st century. You’re going to have, say, a minute and a half of good scenes opposite other beginners like yourself, maybe a commercial or two, or a strong over-five that’s really only there so the star has a reason to give a speech. You’re new. They get that. Don’t worry if your demo reel has only two clips, is only 45 seconds long, and is just comedy even though you’re a great dramatic actor. More, longer, and varied scenes will come, and if there’s ever an instance where quality stomps all over quantity with great big hob-nailed boots, this is it. As long as the material on your reel shows that you are good–talented, believable, maybe even loved by the camera–and the production values don’t actively work against you, that’s what counts at this stage.
Because when you’re good, everybody can relax, at least about you. The manager can invite you in for a meeting. The casting director can pick up the phone to call your agent; the director has one fewer nightmare about Death of a Salesman being ruined by table seven celebrating their 50th anniversary, and you move one step closer to getting cast.
In next week’s installment, I’ll be going over an extensive list of what makes for a good, and not-so-good scene, and how to select the best clips for your demo reel. It’s the longest installment in the series, but easily the most important.