What is a Demo Reel

When I first made my way to Hollywood, I was a little overwhelmed with all of the new stuff I had to learn. Breakdowns, “coverage”, cold opens, the Thomas Guide (yeah; it was a while ago).

One of the most important ones is the topic of this post: just what the heck is a demo reel? (And why do I need one?)

A demo reel is a short collection of clips from previous projects you have worked on. It demonstrates what talents or skills you would bring to your next project. Demo reels can be made for nearly every creative professional from actor to cinematographer, singer to make-up artist, stuntwoman to sound editor.

What Should I Put In My Demo Reel?

In a nutshell? Your best work, whatever that is at the moment.

Always start with your best clip, then the next best, third-best, and so on. Don’t save one of your strongest pieces to give you a strong out. Don’t worry if that means you start with two drama clips in a row. Best stuff first, second-best stuff second, etc.

Think about it. When you’re watching a TV show or movie, how long does it take you to decide if someone is a terrible actor? Five seconds? Two?

That’s about the same amount of time you have to make a positive impression with your reel. If your first clip isn’t your strongest they may stop watching after five seconds and never find out how good you truly are.

Cool. Except “Best” Can Mean a Lot of Things.

True. My experience has been that the best clips must first A) show stakes and relationships, and B) exemplify a character breakdown.

So, say you have a clip like this:

JAMES walks up to the RECEPTIONIST.

Second door on the left. You can’t miss it.

James heads down the hallway.

No stakes. No relationship. Your character is basically only there to ease the transition from one scene to the next. You could put it in a reel, but it’s not going to do much for you.

On the other hand, if the scene played out like this:

JAMES steps out of the elevator and is immediately spotted by the RECEPTIONIST whose lip curls at the sight of him.

You again. Second door on the left. Even you can’t miss it.

James slinks down the hallway.

(calling after him)
Don’t make me call the cops again. Or better yet, do!

Now we have a scene! It’s not just that there are more lines, we know how you feel about James. We know what your relationship is to him and to whoever is in the office. And we know what the stakes are. You’re not just doing your job as in the first version, you really want a reason to keep James from ever coming back.

In the first version, the breakdown would be: “RECEPTIONIST. Tells James which door to use. 1 scene, 2 lines.”

In the second, “RECEPTIONIST. Very protective of their boss and really doesn’t like JAMES. 1 scene, 5 lines.”

The first version offers little more than what you look and sound like. The second one lets us see what you can do as an actor.

If you literally have no clips other than something like the first one, however, go ahead and use it. Showing what you look and sound like is better than nothing.

Of course, this is just one example and the definition of your best clip will probably change as you add new projects. A scene that’s well-written, but poorly edited may be better for you than a scene where you only have a couple of lines, but the lighting is amazing. Or vice versa.

Maybe your rep doesn’t care if your scene is just one line because it’s one line on an episode of NCIS: LA opposite LL Cool J. In this case, “best” would mean showing you got cast when the producers had literally thousands of actors to pick from.

How Long Should A Demo Reel Be?

The most common answer is 60 seconds. Agents and casting directors like this answer because it’s simple and straightforward. This isn’t necessarily a bad answer, but it’s an incomplete one.

I think a better answer is, your demo reel should be as long as your material is good. Nobody is going to pass on signing or casting you because even though your reel is awesome it runs 67 seconds.

But! This is not an excuse to make a five-minute demo reel. The truth is, in almost 15 years of editing reels, I’ve rarely seen one that’s still interesting after it passes the two-minute mark.

The real reason everyone says “60 seconds” is because it forces you to be ruthless with your material. With so little time, you have to choose your best work and cut out everything else.

Among other things, this means:

  • Cut out everything that isn’t you or isn’t necessary for the scene to make sense.
  • Don’t explain the whole movie or even a part of it.
  • Don’t show the same type of character more than once.
  • Don’t show a sub-standard clip just because it’s the only one you have where you speak in an accent/wear a cowboy hat/get in a fight or whatever.

So What Makes for a Bad Clip?

In another nutshell? Anything that pulls the focus away from your performance.

I go into more detail in What Not to Put In Your Demo Reel, but some examples of a bad clip would be when:

  • You aren’t talking. It’s very rare for an MOS/non-sync sound clip to be worth including in a reel.
  • There’s no context. If you’re just laughing or crying or screaming obscenities, that’s just emoting. Why are you doing these things? Who is all this directed at? What went on before—or will go on after—these outbursts? These are what make for a scene.
  • Your back is to the camera for most or all of the scene.
    Pro Tip: If we can’t see your eyes, we can’t make an emotional connection. If we can’t make an emotional connection, we won’t care about your character.
  • The lighting/sound/editing/writing are poor.
  • Your co-star is really bad. (Or worse: your co-star is more interesting than you.)

Remember: weak scenes will always drag strong scenes down to their level, never the reverse.

Start Simple. End Simple.

For actors, the days of montages and musical openings—or any music on a reel—are long gone and good riddance. Demo reels are not entertainment. They are marketing vehicles to showcase your talent. No one has ever said, “I’m going to pass on the Disneyland trip and sit and watch a bunch of demo reels.”

Start with just your name and go directly into the first clip. I don’t even recommend putting your name on a separate card before the reel. I cold open my clients’ reels with their first clip and put their name down at the bottom of the screen (called a “lower third”).

After the last clip, end your reel with a simple 4-6 second title card with your name. No music. NO montages.

Do NOT Include Your Contact Information.

Do You Want Stalkers? Because that's how you get stalkersIf you put your phone number or email address on your reel, you will have crazy people contacting you.

Anybody who is legitimate and sees your reel will have your name and know how to find you with that. If it’s on Actors Access, Casting Networks, IMDb Pro, or any other casting site, they are literally on your page with your contact information attached to it.

If you feel you absolutely must have contact information, use your agent’s or manager’s number and email. If you do this, however, you’ll have to pay to update your reel whenever you change representation.

Yes, You Can Just Use Clips.

In fact, some CDs prefer them. Many times if they’re casting for a judge or a soldier or a quirky scientist, they just want to see you play that. They don’t have time to wade through 40 seconds of you crying over your dead dad/fighting with your cheating spouse/rallying your soldiers to fight for their freedom.

However, a preference for clips vs. reels will vary from CD to CD, and will change based on what they’re casting (e.g., under 5 vs. guest star). Even though it may cost you more money, a smarter tactic would be to have both a reel and separate clips. That way you and your reps have options.

Demo Reels Are Not Static.

It would be great if once you finally had a reel you were done with the whole process, but sadly, that’s not the case.

Your demo reel should be updated every time you have a new clip that is either A) the same character you have on your reel, but with better production values (even better would be a recognizable face or name in the scene with you), or B) a character you haven’t played, and with production values that are at least as good as the least-good clip on your reel.

Whatever state your demo reel is currently in, that’s the baseline. Keep the focus on making it better.

Why Can’t They Just Audition Me?

Time. Money. Energy. Pick three.

Casting directors, agents, managers, producers and pretty much everyone else in the industry are all scrambling to catch the wave just like you and I. They need a way to quickly winnow the field of thousands (or even, yes, tens of thousands) of submissions to just a dozen or so.

Unfortunately, they know all too well the price of banking on the wrong actor: unemployment.

I tell my clients not to think of a demo reel as a means to get a job. I know I called them marketing vehicles earlier, but your demo reel actually has almost nothing to do with you.

What your demo reel actually does is help people who are in a position to give you a job feel less terrified that they’ll lose theirs if they do.

There You Have It

It’s been said that “There are no easy answers, but there are simple ones.” Despite appearances, demo reels are actually pretty straightforward: best clip first, second best second and so on. Tightly edited. Focused on you. Skip the frills and whiz-bang effects.

Have more questions about demo reels? Feel free to contact us.