"The secret about demo reels." It just evokes an air of mystery, doesn’t it? But a secret is just a piece of information that you don’t know yet. So I’m gonna just spill it. And then you’ll know it and that will be that. OK, are you sitting down?
Here it is: The secret about demo reels is most of the time, people never watch past the first 10 seconds.
Yes, it’s true. Although I can’t speak for everyone, what I’ve observed and experienced is that the vast majority of reels that are sent to casting directors get turned off in less than 10 seconds. I know you may be already scrolling down to the bottom of this article getting ready to write your lengthy, outraged comment. But before you go there, please let me explain.
When I say the “vast majority," I’m mostly referring to unsolicited demo reels. Those are the demos that you send a casting director when they didn’t actually ask for one. I don’t mean the ones your agent sent to a casting director when they actually requested to see it. Those usually get about 30 seconds before they are turned off—unless they are great, of course, and then they get watched some more.
What new actors should know about demo reels...
So now you are probably asking, "What makes a demo reel good?" But the question at hand really is, "What gets a demo reel watched?"
In my humble opinion, after having watched thousands of demos over the years—both solicited and not—here are a couple of key things (besides a great performance) that make a demo reel much more likely to be watched past 10 seconds.
Put your best, most impactful clip at the top of the reel. Reels are not like meals. Don’t save the best for last. Your best clip should not be the dessert, but rather the first course. Make an impact! If they like what they see, they will continue to watch. Get them hungry for more.
Keep it short. I’ve found that the three-minute mark is usually the sweet spot. Long enough to show some good stuff, but not so long that your watcher is getting bored. Believe it or not, five minutes can seem like a lifetime if the material isn’t scintillating.
Put yourself in a casting director’s shoes. Say you need to look at the reels of 50 actors for one role. Fifty demos times 5 minutes each. That’s more than four hours of footage. Build in a few extra minutes for clicking on and off and maybe a bathroom break and that’s nearly five hours. And that’s just one role.
Understand that your reel is not being watched in a vacuum. They are not sitting down in a plush private screening room with an icy cold drink and some warm popcorn, relaxed and excited to enjoy a great piece of entertainment. In reality, they are sitting at their computer after hours of auditions and millions of phone calls, tired, harried, and stressed, eating lunch at their desk (again) with a mountain of demos to get through before the next session.
To give yourself the best chance of getting watched, pick your best stuff and cut it down to 2-3 minutes and lead with your very best, most attention-getting clip. It’s actually a good thing if they wish it were longer. It’s infinitely better than the reverse!
With reels, as with any great performance, the rule of thumb is, “Always leave ‘em wanting more!”
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Amy Jo Berman is former Vice President of Casting at HBO and for 14 years has overseen the casting of over 150 films, mini-series, and series. She is the founder of Audition Polish, a membership-based audition coaching program that has helped actors around the globe nail their auditions on the first take. Using her 18+ years of technical audition experience in the casting room, Amy has helped thousands of actors with her tele-classes, private coaching, workshops, and seminars. Amy loves staying in touch with actors on social media. Watch her video acting tips on YouTube, join her Tips On Acting community on Facebook and get her VIP event updates here.