What NOT to Put Into Your Demo Reel
First, let’s address the obvious objection: it’s your career and your demo reel so ultimately you can put whatever the heck you want on it.
However, in life as in art, you can make strong choices that will advance your goals or weak choices that will make success much more difficult.
Anything that deviates or distracts from the message, “I am an experienced professional, and here’s what I can bring to your next project” should not be added to a reel.
Some quick notes:
- This article only touches on what makes a scene bad. For more information about what makes a scene bad, check out, “How to Pick the Best Scenes for Your Reel”.
- The focus of this article is on theatrical demo reels so some of the admonitions won’t apply if you’re putting together say, a Stunt Reel (No Montages) or a “Scream Queen” reel (No Gore).
- Some material such as stand-up that shouldn’t be included in a theatrical reel can still be very useful as standalone clips.
- If your agent or manager says, “To hell with some article you read online!” follow their instructions. If they think they can successfully pitch you even with all of the stuff below on your reel, give them what they believe they need to do their job.
Okay, with that done let’s dive into the list of what NOT to put into your reel:
These are a holdover from decades ago when people tried to make demo reels interesting. They were still so new and expensive to produce that you didn’t want to just show clips of your work because who would want to watch that?
CDs quickly realized, though, that montages did nothing but turn a 60-second reel into a two-minute reel and didn’t help them decide if the person they were watching could act or was right for what they were casting.
Today, if your reel has a montage in it—particularly at the start—you’re going to start off with people thinking not-good-thoughts about you.
Much the same with montages, music was added to the title and end cards of reels to keep things “peppy” and “fun”.
Nowadays, nobody’s paying attention to any music that plays underneath the cards. It might be a nice at the end, but it won’t score you any points or make it more likely you’ll be cast or even remembered.
Save your money. Cold open your reel with your first clip, and put your name on it in a lower-third.
Personal Contact information
As I wrote in another article, “Do you want stalkers? Because that’s how you get stalkers.”
Anyone who is in a position to give you a job or rep you will know how to find your contact information on Actors Access, IMDb Pro, Casting Networks, etc.
If you don’t have representation at the moment, they’ll still be able to use those sites to contact you
I don’t even recommend putting your agency’s or manager’s information at the end because if you switch reps you’ll have to come back and pay to get the information removed or replaced.
Stage Work, Stand-up, In-class Work, Auditions, Toastmaster Events, TED Talks
These all fall under the category of Things That Involve Acting But Aren’t Theatrical.
Stand-up chops are fantastic to have and much in demand today, but clips of you killing it at the Improv or Caroline’s should be on their own reel.
Like stage work, the skills involved have some overlap with on-camera acting, but they are still two very different beasts.
In-class work and auditions will typically have flat-to-terrible lighting and the reader will be off-camera and sound terrible because they won’t be near a mic. These just send the message, “I literally have nothing professional to show you.” Only use these if your rep insists on it.
Toastmaster and TED talks can be useful if you’re preparing a Hosting reel, but again, these things don’t show you can act.
The great thing about animation, radio commercials, narration and the like: it doesn’t matter what you look like. Women can play boys. Men can be Thundercats. And you get to go to work in your pajamas.
Unfortunately, the same can not be said for on-camera work. How you look plays a major role in whether you’ll be cast. If you put V/O clips on your reel, you’re basically telling everyone, “I don’t respect your time or care about what you need.”
Still Photos That Move (The “Ken Burns Effect”)
I’ve had a few clients that insisted still photos that scrolled across the screen while they did some voiceover or narration underneath counted as on-camera work.
You have to remember that casting director’s are just like actors. They’re unemployed and on hunt for their next gig as soon as their current project is cast or their TV show goes off the air. Which means the only way they stay in business is if they bring in awesome actors and the people they work with think they’re amazing at their jobs.
There’s no way they’re going to risk their reputation on an amateur. And only amateurs would think an moving still counted as an acting clip.
Anything Where You’re Covered Head-to-Toe
Whether you’re Mickey Mouse dancing up a storm on Disneyland’s Main Street USA or SpongeBob Squarepants violating copyright on Hollywood Boulevard, if we can’t see your eyes or even tell if it’s you underneath the foam and spandex it’s going to seriously hurt your chances of being cast.
Sure, there is the occasional breakdown that calls for people who can do full-body costumes, so if you’ve got some footage save that for a stand-alone clip or a specialty reel.
How long is too long? Once you hit the 30-second mark you need to start looking for an out. 60 seconds or more and you’re officially in the red.
Like everyone in Hollywood these days, CDs have to figure out how to get 100 things done every day in the time it used to take to do 50.
So when they watch your reel, they want to see lots of examples of what you’ve done and by extension what you can do for them and the project they’re casting. Spend too much time on one scene and they’re going to move on to the next actor who understands their needs.
If a scene is poorly edited, acted, or written. If the lighting or sound (especially the sound) are amateur hour. You simply can’t add it to your reel.
The adage, “No reel is better than a bad reel” is all too true. If you give someone a reason to say No they’ll take it and it will be years before they’ll give you a second chance to change their mind.
This is where a professional editor can be a life-saver. Since we’re not emotionally attached to your work we can take a step back and impartially assess if it’s any good.
For a more in-depth explanation of what makes a scene bad, check out “How to Pick the Best Scenes for Your Reel”.
Anything That Explains the Story
In a demo reel, the only thing that matters is that the scene make sense.
Nobody watching your reel will care if the butler actually killed the heiress or your wisecrack to the barista is actually a callback to the meet cute from last week’s episode, but they’ll resent you for wasting their time.
The only time you should keep any story-explaining dialogue is if it helps clarify the stakes and relationship in the scene you’re in.
These next ones aren’t hard-and-fast Nopes, but should be approached with caution depending on the project, network, or CD.
Is your “scene” just a quick cut to your face like in a music video montage? Or one short sentence in a series of shots of people saying out-of-context stuff like in a flashback?
Including clips like these just confuses people because there’s no context to them and they go by so fast the viewer is left thinking, “What the heck was that?”
Yes, you can include stuff that happens before or after your line or face appears, but now you’re shifting the focus to other people, adding time to your reel, and Explaining the Story.
Monologues to Camera
You know what I’m talking about here.
Not scenes where the director is fourth-wall-breaking it Ferris Bueller-style or when your character is a news reporter.
It’s when the actor speaks to the camera as if it’s a person and their monologue is a heavily emoted parade of f-bombs and/or tears. The only people who still do this are those who don’t know any better or those who think acting is nothing but the most extreme of emotions dialed to 11.
You have to remember that perception plays a huge part in getting traction in Hollywood, and no casting director is going to risk their mortgage on an unknown who doesn’t know how Hollywood works.
In addition to just plain not wanting to look at half- or all-the-way naked people while at work, nudity in way too many movies and TV shows is so obviously gratuitous that the CD might not even see your scene because they’ll be too busy rolling their eyes.
Sure, you can make the argument that many modern shows like Game of Thrones have lots of great acting going on while everyone is au naturel but showing those scenes on your reel—even if they’re fantastically well acted—may result in a loss of credibility.
Everybody watching your reel will be a grown up (or they should be), but if you’re submitting for a Disney or Nickelodeon show it’s only smart to create a G-rated version of your reel.
A clean (“squeaky,” even) image is still very important to these networks and to the parents whose kids are watching their shows. As such it makes sense to cut the scene where you’re dropping f-bombs like a drunken sailor just back from a three-day pass.
I’ve seen some very funny scenes with eyeballs hanging out of sockets, armless homages to Monty Python’s, “It’s just a flesh wound!” gag, etc., so there’s definitely room for interpretation here.
However, if the clip is one of the messier moments in a slasher film or torture porn I would think hard about using any other scene that might show off the same character or emotion.
Some people have lower tolerances for blood and body parts flying every which way and nauseating a CD is not a good way to start off the relationship.
The Basics Really are Best
Everyone is always looking for the next new “thing” to help them stand out from the competition.
It may be tough to hear and tougher still to follow through with, but where demo reels are concerned, it really is best to stick with the same tried-and-true formula that everyone else uses: tightly edited, short(-ish) clips exclusively from good-quality TV and film projects.
Casting directors are by necessity cautious types, and are only going to take a chance on someone they don’t know if they feel certain that decision won’t backfire on them.