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Backstage Experts

How the Demo Reel Has Evolved

How the Demo Reel Has Evolved

In my anecdotal survey of "The Things Actors Think They Need Most," I find that there’s a tight race between agent/manager and demo reel. Representation, of course, is necessary for so many career goals. There has been a gradual evolution of how that relationship gets started, but essentially the facts are still the grim realities. Namely, there are too many talented and deserving actors for the jobs available, and the talent reps are constrained in how many actors they can take on by the number of jobs available. It’s still a numbers game.

But that other item that smart actors know they must acquire—a demo reel—is morphing in front of our very eyes, giving today’s actors a much more robust set of opportunities to get the attention they crave.

It used to be that a demo reel was literally that: a reel of film or video, depending on how far back you want to trace it, that was a demonstration of an actor’s abilities. VHS tapes would fly through the air, landing on agents’ and casting directors’ desks, begging to be loaded into a machine that would play them on a television set. These offices would have dozens—if not hundreds—of such cassettes with hand-printed labels peeling off their spines, stacked in bookcases, and, often, on the floor.

The Internet and digital technology have changed all that. Just as the “cc” line on an email refers to a technology that hasn’t been relevant for many years (“carbon copy”), the term “demo reel” has lost its connection to the origin of the name. Yes, it’s still a demonstration, but there are no more reels involved.

First, DVD killed VHS. DVDs are more compact and easier to play and offer quality video and audio. The downside for most actors was that the DVD still had to be shipped to its target audience, one at a time.

But quickly, as websites grew and services for internet hosting (e.g., YouTube) matured, there was no longer a need for demo reels to be shipped to anyone. Bye-bye DVD!

What has remained stubbornly constant through these changes has been the notion that a demo reel was a compilation of your best acting moments, stitched together in one continuous presentation. But that consideration is moot now.

When you are showing your acting skills online—whether on your own website or somewhere else—you have new opportunities to make an entirely different kind of presentation. Rather than one continuous video that shows three or four scenes from different projects, you can just as easily show those clips individually at no cost of convenience or time for the viewer. And you can label them very specifically: Dramatic scene, comedic scene, action scene, etc.

This is a perfect solution for an actor who doesn’t really have enough strong material for a 1:15 compilation, but has one or two great 20-second clips.

The caveat—and this is not to be taken lightly—is that however you present your acting demos, they must be bite-sized portions. A traditional demo reel, which will still be the dominant vehicle for the foreseeable future, is now considered to be bloated if it exceeds 1:30 or so in total length. Individual clips should be much shorter than that. They must be expertly edited to showcase only you and placed next to each other on the same webpage. Convenience and brevity trump everything else.

The goal is to present your videos in a way that makes them the virtual equivalent of salted peanuts—no one can stop at just one!

Brad Holbrook is the founder, chief cook, and bottle washer of, a Manhattan studio that creates video marketing tools for actors. He also trains and coaches actors in the skills required for performing on camera, privately and in group classes.  He can be reached at Brad has spent his entire adult life in front of the camera.  After getting degrees in theater arts and journalism, he first worked as a reporter in a small Midwestern TV station. That led to a 20+ year career as a reporter, anchor, and host at stations across the country. For the past several years, he has had the chance to scratch that acting itch again, and has worked as an actor on NYC stages, as well as in network TV shows and studio films.  Currently he plays a TV host in The Onion News Network’s continuing parody series “Today NOW!”

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