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Actor Reels: Getting a Rep with On-Brand Footage

The demo reel has always driven me a bit crazy. As a producer/director it’s critical to see a demo reel. I’m looking for talent and time is of the essence. I am always in a hurry which seems to be part of the industry. There is always too much to be done and there are more options than you can control or plan on. I’m so glad that now we have demo reels on the Internet which means I can find somebody fast. I can see their skill and talent and get a sense of how they might create a part that I envision in my mind.

It’s fabulous.

But before we get into that... let me tell you a story. I’ll leave the names out to protect the innocent. I was hired by the Attorney General of our grand state to make a film to show teenagers how they should handle testifying in court. I decided to make the video look like a music video sensation with a twenty something actress playing the part of a host telling the teens how to testify in court. I did not have access to a good set of demo reels and the internet did not yet have great web sites with reels. I was forced to look at resumes and head shots. The headshot is important and you need one, but without the demo reel, I could not really see the talent of the actress I was reviewing.

I found the perfect look in a woman I will call Mary. I talked to Mary about working together and we decided to meet at a Starbucks and discuss the part. I arrived at the Starbucks and she was nowhere to be found. I looked around and couldn’t find her. After waiting for a good deal of time, I decided to give her a call on my cell.

A woman two tables down answered the call. At that point I realized she was Mary but looked like a completely different person than her two-dimensional headshot. I needed to see her moving. We had a good laugh about it. But the shoot went off very well and she did a great job. But I learned my lesson to always view a demo reel.

So what makes a great demo reel?

From my point of view as a producer/director it’s a window into the actor’s world.

  • What do they look like?

  • How do they move?

  • What tools do they have in their toolbox to create the character I seek?

  • What do they bring to the part that I did not anticipate or envision?

I am looking for the magic. You do not have to bankrupt yourself to create a demo reel. It can be quite cost-effective and can be shot with all new material or it can incorporate your existing work.

Elements to Consider

Production value is especially important. I need to be able to see the actor in good, artistic lighting. I want to be able to see the expression on their face. The audio quality should be excellent. Most importantly, the demo reel needs to demonstrate the qualities of the actor that show they have the talent and the consistency to do what I need done. It should incorporate the kind of parts at which the actor excels. You might use existing scenes from projects you have done before or have it shot with all new material.

The key to success is getting in front of the right reps. I have a lot of expertise in promotion and selling oneself so look for that in a future blog. For now, let’s look at what you want the reps to see. Perhaps they are working with TV and motion picture companies, ad agencies, and independent producers. Regardless of who they are working with the reps all have one key job: to find the right actor.

That is precisely where your demo reel comes into play. They should see a picture of who you are, how you approach acting and what you can accomplish on screen. They need to be able to see that you can act. There are a lot of people out there with no training, no background and no skills who just hang up a shingle and say, “Hey! I’m an actor!”. And if that’s you, LOL, that’s OK. I am speaking in general terms here.

We all know the stories of the great actors and big stars who just got “lucky“ and landed the right part at the right time. So I am rooting for you and the magic you bring to the field. As a general principle however, the demo reel sets you apart and places your talent square in front of the industry which is where you want it to be. It also shows that you have experience on a set and on location. Shooting can be complex and time-consuming and the actor can spend a lot of time waiting around. To be frank it can be challenging. The actor needs to know how to interact with the crew and the other talent.

They will want to be a professional and be part of the team creating a great piece of work. We have all heard the stories of the temperamental actor storming off the set and causing problems and frustration. The demo reel simply lets the director/producer and rep know that you have experience on set, on location and working with a crew. It’s a subtle distinction but it’s important because it’s almost unconscious. It places you in the realm of the professional actor.

An important fact of which to be aware is that the demo reel makes you saleable. I discovered over the years that producing, directing and acting all involve sales. Not sales like selling a car or house but sales where you engage another person or an audience in your dream and your vision. The rep who is viewing your demo reel is buying. He or she is looking for an answer.

They are exploring the actors as a fit for the part and the message. Your demo reel presents you as a solution to their search for the perfect fit. The producer, director or representative needs to be sold that they’ve made a good choice and your audition and demo reel are your part in the sale. When you got into acting you never thought of yourself as a salesperson but every audition in a way is selling yourself. You can’t be someone that you’re not and you can’t bring skills to the table you don’t have. What you can do is show off your creativity and your talent in your demo reel. It’s a powerful tool for showcasing who you are.

But let’s pause here for just a moment so I can share with you a key to your future. As your demo reel makes the rounds and you go on auditions, you will meet other actors, directors, producers, sound experts, composers and everyone who has a part in the creative process. All these people constitute a powerful network for you. They are your contact list. This list became especially important to my career. I would keep track of everyone I interacted with. I would enter them into a customer relationship management system either in my computer or the old fashioned way on a three by five index card.

I kept notes on everyone I met in the industry, what they do, what they say and notes about my interaction with them. Keep in mind it’s certainly not a perfect plan as some people’s information will get lost over time but I have connections with people who produced major television series, motion pictures and even television networks.

It’s important to stay connected to the people that you meet in the industry. It will pay off big time over the long haul. Believe it or not your demo reel is where it all starts. The demo reel unlocks the future.

Now let’s talk about your target audience.

You could, of course, make several demos, one for TV commercials, another for TV and film work, and perhaps one for voice-overs. But whichever demo reel you choose to create keep the audience in mind. This can help you create a laser focused demo reel. For example, at one point in my career I was doing corporate videos for big companies around the world and needed a spokesperson to represent the company in a powerful way.

I wanted someone who looked like they could be comfortable in a business environment and working with business leaders on a global business stage. I looked at the demo reels and found a gentleman who looked the part, had the qualities I imagined and did a great job. Keep in mind targeting your demo reel. Think about who will see it and what they might be looking for. If you do that then I will see you on the big screen. Actually, nowadays the big screen can be the little screen. But whichever screen you are on remember that your work is designed to enlighten, entertain and inspire.

The demo reel is a great tool. Thanks for being an actor.

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