4 Ways To Make Your Demo Reel Stand Out

Written by Mark Macias

Put yourself in the position of a casting agent. You need to hire an actress for a commercial shoot. She should have a comedic style and must be strong enough to carry a 30-second commercial. Her age and ethnicity can vary, so the actress search is broad.

I’ve posted similar actor ads on Craigslist and received more than 300 emails in the first 10 hours. After the first 20 emails, I have to be honest all CVs and headshots run together – with the exception of one group: actors with a reel.

I will never understand why actors don’t email a reel when they are applying for an audition, yet less than 3 percent of the actors who have applied for jobs that I posted emailed me a video reel. The rest emailed me multiple attachments with headshots and resumes, assuming I had the time to open 5 attachments.

It doesn’t make any sense. A video reel showcases an actor’s presence, acting skills, delivery, voice and style. A headshot just tells me what you look like, but even that isn’t always accurate. 

My actor friends have given me a million excuses why they don’t have a reel.

It costs too much money.

The camera distorts how I look.

I’m worried my reel won’t showcase my true acting abilities.

I don’t trust the editor to sell me to an agent.

I’d prefer to sell them on my abilities once I get the audition.

And if you don’t have a reel, I’m sure you have your own reasons for not getting one. My actor friends openly admit they are not the savviest when it comes to marketing themselves as actors, but a reel isn’t marketing. A reel is an opportunity to speak directly to agents and directors, showing them what you have to offer.

In my former TV career, I produced reels that got me up the ranks of NBC, CBS and King World Productions. As an Executive Producer with WNBC, I hired producers, talent and screened more reels than I could ever count. If you think Craigslist postings get a ton of responses, imagine what an on-air posting for NBC will produce.

Here are a few tips to help you understand what your reel needs to stand out from the pack.

1) The first 10 to 15-seconds are crucial. This is when the agent and producers are watching with their gut. Does she have what it takes? What does he look like? How are her expressions? How is her voice? Does his charisma come across the screen? Does she speak to me? This is why you should begin your reel with a close-up of you, talking directly to the camera. In TV news, all reporters start their reels with several standups and there is a reason why this is the standard in news. It works. A General Manager and News Director can see instantly what this reporter looks like. It’s no different for an actor. Start your reel with a snippet of you.

2) Your reel shouldn’t be more than 3.5 minutes, but if you have several minutes of great content, go up to four minutes. It’s highly unlikely an agent, producer, ie will watch more than that amount of time when screening for an audition and here is why. You are one reel in a pile and the casting agent doesn’t have hours of time to screen for an audition. It’s more likely the hiring agent has already made up his/her mind within the first minute of watching your reel. This is another reason why you want to showcase your close-up scenes at the beginning of your reel. This should go without saying (but actors do it, so it must be stated), put your best material first and go down the list. Don’t start with a wide shot where you are one in a crowd.

3) Shorter and stronger is better than longer and weaker. I’ve produced some reels for talent where they didn’t have more than 2 minutes of material. In a way, screening for an actor is like online dating. Sometimes, you see too many pictures of the single person and you realize why he/she is on this dating site. If you don’t have enough good material, then keep your reel short.

4) Present original content with your reel. A few actor friends have asked me why they shouldn’t add theatrical roles to their reel. Yesterday, someone asked me if he could perform a role from Brokeback Mountain for his reel. No matter how good your acting is, you can’t compete with Heath Ledger, so don’t even try. If you don’t have any original screenplays, then pull a script from an off-theater production. You want them to remember you, not the role someone else played.

Finally, don’t put too much pressure on your reel. You’re not producing a reel to land the role. You are producing a reel so that you can get an audition and be seen by the right people. Technology has enabled us to do this, so put it to your advantage. Likewise, get yourself a website so everything can be seen on one page. No one wants to open an attachment, so don’t give them a reason to dismiss your dreams.


Mark Macias is the founder of ReelFactor.com. His company, 3M Media Group, has produced videos and commercials for all kinds of projects, including retailers, programmers, restaurants, hotels and personalities.


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