Commercial reels are most useful for trying to secure a commercial agent. Showing them ads you've already been cast in, what types of commercials you're right for, what characters you tend to get cast as, and, most important, the fact that you've already made money doing commercials is invaluable. An actor with a reel is much more likely to get a meeting than one without.
It is also possible that commercial casting directors, commercial producers, and ad executives, if they like your headshot, will look at your reel to get a sense of who you are. "It's an opportunity for exposure," says Jesse Kelly of Advanced Media in Los Angeles. "The actor can demonstrate ability, look, and style to someone in the position to help them get cast in movies and/or TV."
Your commercial reel should be around 60 to 90 seconds long, two minutes max. "Shorter is better," says commercial director Scott Young. "It's best to have three great clips rather than five clips with two that are not that great." Kelly agrees: "Better to keep them wanting more than having had enough."
If you are lucky enough to have a great deal of excellent footage (in the sense that it's in focus and audible), choosing which clips to use for your reel may be difficult, but you still don't want to go over two minutes. "Less can be more," says Brad Holbrook of ActorIntro in New York. "And it's easier on the budget to embrace that idea." Remember that a longer reel will cost you more, as most editors charge by the hour.
Always put your best clip at the beginning of the reel. It might be the only one the agent or CD has time to watch. "If your reel starts out with something very high-caliber—I'm talking production values, sound, resolution, camera work—it's reassuring," says Holbrook. "It shows you are a serious player."
From there, add your clips with the best-quality video production and that best show your abilities. "All other considerations are distantly behind these two," Holbrook says. Any recognizable ads, brands, or people should be considered next. "Commercials with famous actors help your credibility a lot," says Kelly.
Finally, consider using commercials that show your range. Ryan Allen of Beverly Hills Demo Reels thinks having three contrasting commercials on your reel is what you should aim for. Holbrook agrees. "Variety, as much of it as you can show, is the key," he says.
If you've done only one or two commercials but you still want a commercial reel, consider using some of the other footage you may have, such as clips of your hosting work or a comedy scene that looks like it could be a commercial. If it is shot and edited well, it might work in your reel.
"Keep in mind that what the CD is looking for when they're casting a commercial is an actor who embodies the type they need," says Holbrook. "A commercial demo reel doesn't necessarily have to include only commercial work. Other performance footage that can show off your type and talent could also qualify."
Another option is shooting your own content specifically for your reel. This can be tricky to do on your own, not to mention pricey. You need good writing, lighting and sound equipment, a camera—all the things you would need to shoot a film. If you go this route, you will probably still want to hire a demo reel editor. "There are certain content choices, construction formats, and rhythms that need to be created in order to make a good commercial reel," says Allen. "Unless you have been trained as a professional editor, you probably won't make it the best it can be."
"A lot of actors have tried to get their amateur editor friends to produce their demo reels for them, and this can turn out badly," says Derrick Boelter of L.A.'s Reels for Actors. "If you're looking for an editor, you should find somebody that has done hundreds of demo reels, that understands both the art and science of doing it right, that can get your reel ready and make it look and feel professional and seamless, so that the viewer can concentrate on whether you'd be right for the part."
There are also services that will help you shoot a commercial tailored for your reel. Again, this option can be pricey, but if you really want to show what you can do and don't want to wait around for the perfect footage, it's a solid option.
How to Get a Copy of Your Work
To put together a reel, you need footage. It is so important to get digital copies of your work whenever possible. Here's a tip from commercial director Scott Young:
"When on a set, hang on to your call sheet. Try and find out when and from whom you can get the final piece. It's easier to get some answers while you're there on the set versus a couple weeks later calling around. You don't want a DVD; you want a finished QuickTime [file]. Often someone can send you a link to the work. Anything you have on DVD should be ripped and turned into QuickTimes before you go to an editor, if possible. It will save you money. There are free programs you can find on the Internet, like MPEG Streamclip, that will do this."
A List of Don'ts for Commercial Reels
"Don't worry about the reel making sense. It's not a narrative. Clips smash into one another with no sense of a theme, and that's fine. It's not a story. It's a demo reel. It shows you in a variety of looks and attitudes, so that they can decide if you're worth calling in." (Brad Holbrook, ActorIntro)
"I would avoid putting any sort of montage on your demo reel. People don't have much spare time these days, and chances are that casting directors will fast-forward through it." (Derrick Boelter, Reels for Actors)
"No drama. Rarely is that footage used for commercial reels. Light and positive is the best way to go." (Ryan Allen, Beverly Hills Demo Reels)
"If you're in a scene where the only thing that we see of you is the back of your head, then that's probably not a good thing to include." (Boelter)
"Stay away from anything terribly offensive. There's a lot of Web video out there that includes not-ready-for-prime-time subject matter, and especially for a commercial reel, it probably won't win you any admirers in the client's office." (Holbrook)