How To Make a Demo Reel

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Photo Source: Jasmin Garcia-Verdin

Every actor needs a demo reel, whether they’re just starting out or have been in the game for years. A demo reel is an essential part of an actor’s toolkit, alongside headshots and a résumé—this video compilation is your calling card, the thing that lets the people in charge know who you are and why they should hire you.

But what is a demo reel, exactly? What types of performances should you include? How long should your demo reel be? We’ll answer all these questions (and more) in this in-depth guide to acting reels.

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What is a demo reel?

A demo reel—sometimes known as a “sizzle reel” or a “showreel”—is a video compilation of an actor’s best on-camera work that demonstrates their range in two minutes or less. Demo reels allow agents, casting directors, and producers to get a sense of someone’s acting abilities and on-screen presence. As such, an actor’s reel is often what decides whether they’re asked in for an audition or cast for the part.

Demo reels can also be tailored to different industries. A commercial reel features clips from TV advertisements, for instance. There are even voiceover demo reels, which are a compilation of audio files rather than video.

Traditional demo reels are most important for on-screen roles, whether those are for TV, film, or commercials. Actors auditioning for roles in theater productions could potentially include a demo reel of their on-camera performances with the rest of their submission materials, particularly if they don’t have a lot of professional or stage credits—but it’s typically not a requirement.

Why do actors need demo reels?

Actors need demo reels in order to submit to casting calls and be considered for parts. Other than your headshot, your reel may be the only thing casting directors look at before deciding whether or not they want to bring you in for an audition—or cast you, full stop. 

“From a casting perspective, there are two purposes for reels,” explains on-camera acting teacher Shaan Sharma. “First and foremost, to see what professional work you have done, so we know you’ve been vetted by other professionals in our industry and have experience in speaking roles on professional sets. And if you don’t have that, which none of us do when we first start, a reel will just allow us to gauge your skill as an actor.”

On an even more basic level, having an acting reel can ensure that your submission reaches the casting director in the first place. Online casting platforms, including Backstage, allow casting directors to simply click a button and filter out any submissions without reels. “We can submit you, or you can submit yourself, and your submission never even reaches casting,” says talent manager Jackie Reid. “Are you properly horrified by that idea?! You should be.”

You may also find yourself submitting your demo reel to agents in hopes of getting signed. In fact, “many agents won’t see you without one,” says audition coach and working actor Philip Hernández. And, as acting coach Matt Newton notes, “Nothing is worse than an agent asking for your demo reel, and you saying, ‘Uh, I don’t really have one.’ Consider that a missed opportunity.” 

How do I make a demo reel?

To make a demo reel, you need four to five clips of your best on-screen performances. Each clip should be between 20-30 seconds long; the entire demo reel should be two to three minutes long, maximum. Your reel should also include your name, contact information, headshot, and website.

Start with the personal information so the people watching know who you are and how to get in contact with you. A few seconds of your headshot, name, website, and contact info is all you need. Then go straight into your very best, highest-quality clip. It’s possible that casting will only watch that first clip before deciding whether or not you’re right for the project, so you want to wow them right off the bat. This doesn’t necessarily mean the most well-known project you’ve worked on, either—it should be a clip that highlights your acting ability, not that you had one line on “Grey’s Anatomy.” No need to introduce each clip, either. A simple line of text at the bottom of the screen indicating the name of the project or genre (or both) is plenty. 

Acting coach Matt Newton offers up a handy checklist for figuring out whether a clip is worth including on your demo reel:

  • Is the footage high-quality, including the sound?
  • Does it highlight your performance, not another actor’s?
  • Does the character you’re playing align with your type?
  • Was it shot in the last two years?

If you can answer yes to all four questions, then the clip is probably a strong contender for your showreel. But what if you don’t have any professional footage? Especially early in your career, it can feel like a chicken-and-egg situation: you can’t score an audition without a demo reel… but you can’t get footage for a demo reel without landing a few parts. What gives? Luckily, there are a few workarounds for this common problem—we’ll get into them in the next section.

How do I make a demo reel with no experience?

If you don’t have professional footage for your reel, you have a few options: you can hire a professional reel service that will write scenes for you to perform on a real set, you can shoot your own scenes or self-tape, or you can get involved in student films. There are pros and cons to each option, of course, which we’ll walk you through below.

Professional reel services: There are a number of “create your reel” services that write scenes for actors to perform on a real set with other actors, filmed using professional-grade equipment. This footage is then edited down into demo-friendly bites to help build out your reel. Expert opinions on demo reel companies vary widely—media coach Nicole Sellars thinks it’s usually worth hiring professionals in order to end up with professional-looking footage, although she says to be wary of rip-offs. “Depending on the length of the reel, how many clips you prefer, how many locations you want to shoot, whether you want a coach on set, edit time, etc., the price will vary,” she says. “You can expect to spend roughly $1,000-2,000 depending on these factors. But if you’re getting a quote hovering around the $5,000 or above mark, best to keep looking.”

Session director and acting teacher Shaan Sharma is less enthusiastic. “I personally chafe at actors spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on shooting scenes on their own or those ‘create your reel’ services,” he says. “They will not fool us into thinking you’ve booked and have experience on a professional show. Too many actors shoot them long before they are skilled enough for it to be a good use of their time and money, and it all just reeks of trying too hard.”

Shooting your own scenes: Instead of working with a demo reel service, acting coach Joseph Pearlman encourages actors to write and shoot something themselves. By pooling your resources with a few other actors in the same boat, you can hire your own cinematographer and sound person and film a handful of scenes over a single day. That way, Pearlman explains, “you take control of the content that you create, rather than being beholden to the derivative whims of all the film school graduates and low-level indie directors out there.” 

Self-tapes: Acting teacher Rob Adler doesn’t see anything wrong with filming your entry-level showreel at home, “provided the acting is spontaneous, alive, and shows you at your best.” Sharma agrees: “We cast people off self-tapes all day, every day. We’re used to evaluating actors from great self-taped performances, preferably ones where the lighting, sound, and backdrop are professional.” If you’d like a bit of expert help, there are video production services that shoot self-tapes—and the price tag will be much lower than shooting an entire scene.

Audition tapes: Casting director Lisa London suggests using scenes from previous auditions on your first demo reel. “On one movie I recently cast, I read an actor for a small role,” London says. “The part didn't have a lot of lines, but her manager sent me clips of her previous auditions that really showed her talent. When I sent her audition to the producers, I also included the audition link and she booked the job, largely because of the audition footage.”

Student films: Finally, consider getting involved in student films. Since film students often have access to some of the best equipment, the quality will almost always be good enough to include on your reel.

Most importantly: Do not put a reel together until you are ready. As the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression. If you don’t have enough footage you’re proud of—or enough footage at all—to make a two-minute demo reel, that’s probably a sign that you’re not ready to be submitting to projects that require a demo reel in the first place. “Do not make the mistake of getting a reel together before you are ready,” says acting teacher Paul Barry. “Products rushed to market with technical and design flaws or substandard branding are often viewed as inferior and to be avoided. Don’t let this happen to your own products: you and your talent.”

How long should a demo reel be?

A demo reel should be between one-and-a-half and three minutes long, and it should include three to five different clips. Remember that the people watching your reel are also watching dozens (if not hundreds) of other reels, so it’s important to keep it short and sweet. 

Expert opinions vary on the ideal length for an acting demo reel. The absolute maximum is three minutes, although acting coach Joseph Pearlman believes a good reel should be no longer than one-and-a-half minutes. Backstage Expert Carolyne Barry puts the limit at two minutes. But don’t obsess over the exact length—as we’ve mentioned, casting directors often only watch the first clip or two. That means it’s more important to get straight to the point (remember, no fancy intros or montages!) and front-load your reel with your best performances.

With only 20-30 seconds per clip, you may start to worry that your viewers won’t understand the plot or the context of your performance. But that’s okay! “Your reel is not a short film,” says demo reel editor Joe Gressis. “Reels are decontextualized by nature, meaning that you cannot involve viewers in the story of your scene, no matter how much you might want to. Viewers don't have to understand what's going on in your scene; they only have to believe it.” So don’t stress about setting the scene or making sure a viewer can understand the plot—that’s not why they’re watching.

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What makes a good demo reel?

A good demo reel starts off with your strongest performance, features clear footage with quality sound, is an honest representation of how you currently look and sound, and doesn’t bother with bells and whistles. (And don’t forget a clear slate screen that includes your name, headshot, and contact info!)

A successful demo reel also highlights your versatility as an actor. “Focus on showcasing your range: the types of roles and characters you can play,” says casting director Lisa London. “Don’t include four scenes from the same project, playing the same character. Pick the best one or two scenes from that project and then diversify. We want to see a variety of roles and scenes across drama, comedy, action, etc., showcasing your range of looks and skills.” (That said, make sure the performances on your reel still generally align with your type. Casting directors may be thrown off if you present two wildly different roles side by side.)

Our Backstage Experts agree that a demo reel almost always benefits from an outside perspective. “You might think your acting is amazing in this one scene, but someone else might disagree,” says acting coach Matt Newton. An agent or manager can obviously help with this, as can a professional demo reel service—but you can also ask for feedback from friends or fellow actors.

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What are some common demo reel mistakes?

Some common demo reel mistakes include:

  • Using footage from acting class or on-stage performances
  • Using multiple clips from the same project
  • Using outdated footage
  • Starting with a live, on-camera introduction
  • Featuring other actors more than yourself
  • Adding a musical score

No clips from acting class. Even if your class provides you with footage, that should only be used to help you study, not to pad your reel. No matter how good your work in class is, you won’t be competitive against actors who have professional clips. Same goes for theater performances—often these are filmed from a distance, which makes it difficult for casting directors to get a sense of your on-screen presence.

Avoid heavily dramatic scenes. “The biggest mistake beginners make is to show something tragic and even melodramatic to prove they can act,” warns acting career coach and Backstage Expert Gwyn Gillis. “Wrong. Good acting is subtle.” Horror, sci-fi, and special effects-heavy scenes are also generally a no-no, especially if they emphasize visuals over nuanced performances.

If you’re new to the business and you’re shooting a self-tape to include in your demo reel, steer clear of recognizable scenes from famous films or TV shows. “I cringe when I see actors doing their own versions of ‘Good Will Hunting’ or ‘When Harry Met Sally,’” says Backstage Expert Joseph Pearlman.

There’s also no need for an on-camera introduction; all of the necessary personal and contact information should be included in a quick slate at the beginning or end of your reel, and then go straight into the first scene.

Finally, no CDs or flash drives. (Who knows if the casting director’s laptop even has a disc drive anymore?) Put your reel online, and make sure you also have a compressed, easy-to-send video file on hand as well.

Should I hire a professional to edit my demo reel?

If you have video editing experience, and can guarantee that your demo reel looks professional, then you don’t need to hire a videographer. If not, it’s a good idea to pay a video editing company—particularly one that specializes in demo reels for actors—to put together your clips. “It’s critically important that your demo reel looks and sounds great, and that it’s the best representation of you,” says casting director Lisa London. “An unprofessional demo reel makes you look like an amateur and can easily kill your chance for an audition.”

In terms of finding a videographer, the best place to start is surveying your actor friends for recommendations. Maybe you’ve seen a friend’s reel that you really liked or you overheard someone in your acting class talking about how great the guy who worked on their reel was. Don’t be afraid to ask. And once you do get in touch with a professional, ask questions. Make sure you know all the costs up front, what the payment plan is, what they’ll need from you and what you’ll walk away with. Do you get a say in the order of the footage? How much will it cost to edit new footage you shoot with them into clips from previous roles?

But if you’re confident that you have the video editing experience necessary to put together a polished demo reel, then go for it! Retta Putignano, partner and head writer at a demo reel production company, has four tips for editing your own showreel:

  1. Retain focus. “Share the screen as little as possible. Casting directors, agents, and managers want to see you on your reel...It should start and end with your face. Make it easy for the viewer to know who they should be watching.”
  2. Hold their attention. “Keep the footage as succinct as possible. If a scene goes on too long, you risk losing your viewer. More isn’t always better.”
  3. Put your best footage first. “Don’t risk saving the best for last.”
  4. Don’t be afraid to trim footage. “The viewer doesn’t have time to consider your character’s backstory, the plot, what happened before this scene, or what’s going to happen after. Keep it short.”

What should I do with my finished demo reel?

Once you’ve finished making your demo reel, it’s time to get it online. Upload your reel to your website, YouTube, and Vimeo. Make sure it’s on the front page of your site and it’s clearly labeled as your reel. You’ll also want to have the file saved as a compressed, easy-to-send video file that you can shoot off in an email if necessary.

Acting coach Matt Newton also advises attaching your acting reel to your IMDb profile, uploading it to casting websites (including your Backstage profile), and adding the link to business cards. Another suggestion is to email a link to your demo reel out as a follow-up after you meet a casting director or agent.

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Do I need separate reels for comedy and drama?

If you’re just starting out, don’t worry about having multiple demo reels. Instead, focus on creating a single showreel that highlights a variety of styles, characters, and genres to showcase your range and ability—ideally, a mix of comedy and drama.

But if you’re further along in your acting career, casting director Marci Liroff suggests having one reel for comedy and one for drama. “If I'm casting a comedy, I want to view and show just your comedy footage and vice-versa,” she explains. “If we want to see your range, we can always view the other reel, but I find that most of the filmmakers I work with want to see just your comedy footage if we’re doing a comedy and don't want to wade through all the drama footage on your reel.” 

When should I update my demo reel?

Just like résumés, demo reels should be updated regularly with new footage from bigger, more professional projects. Your first demo reel may have included scenes from student or indie films, maybe even some high-quality self-taped monologues. That’s a good starting point, but as soon as you have something more impressive to replace it—do it! “Remember, at some point you will be filling your reel with network TV credits, shot with million dollar budgets,” says acting coach Matt Newton. “Everything leading up to that will involve replacing older footage with newer, better footage, much like replacing ensemble credits on a résumé with supporting and leading roles.” 

But which clip should you drop? Retta Putignano, partner and head writer at a L.A.-based demo reel production company, suggests considering these four questions when deciding what should end up on the cutting room floor:

  • Does the clip represent a role I can play today?
  • Is the résumé credit more impressive than the clip?
  • Is the clip the weakest link on my reel?
  • Am I clearly seen and heard in the clip?

Now that you've perfected your reel, check out our film audition listings!

Author Headshot
Allie White
Allie is Backstage’s director of editorial operations, whose professional background includes women’s interest, news, health, beauty, and, of course, entertainment. Despite a crippling fear of singing in public, she still believes she’ll be a Broadway star one day.
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