The Dos and Don’ts of Demo Reels

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Photo Source: Jakob Owens on Unsplash

What’s a sizzle reel? A sizzle is a one to two minute demo of mini-clips showing your acting work and your range in a fast-paced, entertaining trailer. Sizzle scenes can be the longer version (two minutes) of each clip, which you might want to put on your website. Sizzles were initially created by writers, directors, and producers who were pitching a new project to the networks and needed to show “proof of concept” or just the style and content of their work. It’s now another term for actors' demo reels—and here are some dos and don'ts to keep in mind as you make your own reel.

Do choose roles that show your type and range. How would you be cast in primetime/daytime TV and films today? Almost all TV series are written in a format or formula which includes classic types: interns/doctors, lawyers/criminals, detectives/investigators, spies/CIA agents, geeks/ordinary people, etc. You need to show what characters in which shows you could play. If the clip you want to put on your reel isn't one of the above or just doesn’t show your marketable range of roles, exclude it.

Don’t put heavily dramatic scenes on your reel. The biggest mistake beginners make is to show something tragic and even melodramatic to prove they can act. Wrong. Good acting is subtle. Did you ever notice that most student films include a lot of screaming, heavy drama, crying, yelling obscenities, and firing of guns? They think it’s cool. The real industry does not. Scenes that are clever, fast-paced, witty, humorous, entertaining, intelligent, and subtle are closer to the real thing. Go for those.

Don’t include horror, alien, or other sci-fi/special effects scenes. Exclude anything overly graphic, gratuitously violent, and unwatchable. First time indie directors love these genres because it fulfills their agenda to produce a sensational, money-making, low-budget first feature. It doesn’t fulfill your agenda as an actor. No A-list casting director or top agent wants a client whose demonstration of talent consists of being pursued across the mall’s parking lot by a maniac wielding a chain saw or girls in the forest at night being pursued by monsters and screaming. Get something better to represent you if you want representation and any work at all!

Don’t shoot or write your own scenes unless you are a professional writer. But then why would you need an actor’s demo reel? Find a company that can produce, write, shoot, and edit a scene or two for you. You deserve the best so go to professionals. It’s not necessary that all your clips (or any) are from actual current TV series or films. All that’s important is that they look professional and show your best work. (At The Actor’s Market we create sizzle scenes in the genres of all the current TV series and shoot with experienced videographers/editors who have already worked on these primetime series.)

Do get the help and advice of an excellent editor who has worked on major primetime TV series. The style is different—the pacing, the lighting, the music, the writing, etc. Better yet, find a career coach to advise you on choice of scenes/roles, wardrobe, image, and style. The roles you will be offered in your career are exactly the roles you display on your reel. Get advice. Represent yourself accurately.

6. Don’t use clips from stage work or scenes from your acting class. You won’t be competitive opposite those who have professional clips. No matter how good your work is, you’ll appear amateur, unprofessional. Don’t use scripts from well-known TV series. Again, you won’t compare favorably with the original cast and you’ll be breaking copyright laws.

7. Make it short, fast-paced, and fun. Show off your best traits, personality, and acting ability. Agents can tell in about 10 seconds if they want to work with you. They don’t need to see a long boring dramatic scene, or several. You could post two or three complete “scenes” (one to two minutes in length) on your website, but you also need a sizzle reel to show to agents, casting directors, and producers.

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Gwyn Gilliss
As the “Foremost Marketing Coach for Actors,” Gwyn was a successful actor herself working in all mediums. An Emmy Award nominee, she appeared on dozens of network daytime and primetime series. Her film scripts won awards from Beverly Hills to Cannes. She’s the premier role model with winning strategies and first-hand knowledge of the TV, film, and theater industries which she shares to help actors succeed. Request a complimentary 15-minute career session:
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