7 Ways to Make the Most of Your Reel (Even If You Don’t Have One)

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As they say in the stock market, past performance is not a predictor of future gains. What I mean by that is despite the fact you have not yet worked on major episodic TV or starred in a multi-million dollar movie is not an indication you won’t soon. Let’s get you on TV, shall we? For now, I want to focus on the demo reel or show reel as it is often referred to across the pond.

There is great talk and consternation over this little encapsulation of your past work. Since we have entered the digital age, it is now easier than ever to not only edit and compile a reel, but also to put it in front of as many people as possible. When and for whom you do this can have a massive impact on your career. For all you “Star Wars” fans, a reel is like The Force. It can be a source of life and creativity or death and destruction.

Here is a short guide on how to maximize the benefit and minimize the risk of this extremely powerful tool.

Do you need a reel? The answer is obviously yes…and no. Thanks, David. That was really helpful. What I mean is that while you are working your way up the acting ladder, you don’t need to put everything you have ever done on display for the world to see. A bad reel is way worse than no reel at all. You can talk yourself into an audition without a reel but you can’t talk yourself out of what’s on it. Don’t ever let your “tools” do something you can do for yourself. If you can come up with a compelling reason why someone should see you, then they probably will. You just have to grow a pair.

If you haven’t done really high quality stuff, why would you want anyone else to see it? Just like every other profession in the world, we don’t want to see you practice. We want to see you when you know what you are doing. That could take years and that’s not only fine, it’s desirable. If you focus more on perfecting your work rather than trying to show it regardless of how sophomoric it is, when you do put together your reel, it will work for you rather than against you.

The best of the best. If you are trying to get professional roles, you should only have professional material on your reel. That isn’t to say it has to come from network television, but it should look like it came from network television. People may argue with me on this, but pressing play on a demo reel is a little like waking up on Christmas morning. There has been a lot of hype and you finally get to open the present. So if it isn’t totally awesome, you’re going to be disappointed. Your reel has to wow people or what’s the point of having one…as a way to let them down? Save that for when you forget your lines in the audition room. It’s better to have someone just see what you can do in person if your reel is going to disappoint them.

Where to put it. You are a professional, or at least you want to be. Watch how a doctor, a dentist, or a carpenter handles their tools. Do they just hand them to anyone and say, “Here, give it a try?” Absolutely not. They guard them and only bring them out when they have a professional job to do. Treat your reel with that same respect and don’t bring it out unless you are going to show it to someone who understands the value it brings. People want what they can’t have, so don’t give it to them unless they are the right person and the right time. It will serve you far better than sending it out over Twitter or putting it on your website for all to see. Worried you will be holding yourself back? Do you really think casting directors are Googling “actor reels” and may stumble upon yours and cast you in the next “Die Hard” installment? If it is not viewable by the public, then you have to work a little harder to get the right people to see it. Heck, you might have to talk to a few industry people. Imagine that.

Who to show it to. Show your reel only to people for whom it was made. It was made to help you convince people that you can do a job. If a role you are interested in has nothing to do with what is on your reel, maybe you shouldn’t show it because while you can paint an amazing picture by talking about what you can do, that all goes away the second they see your 30 seconds of student phantasmagoria. Books are so hard to turn into movies because the human imagination is far more powerful than anything George Lucas can dream up. Show them and they stop using their imagination and think that whatever is on the reel is you in a nutshell. Industry people will want it but you have to hold them off if your reel does not represent what you can do for a particular part.

How long it should be. Your reel should be as short as you can make it. While it’s fun for us and our families to watch us play a werewolf or marine or doctor over and over, it’s not so fun when you have to go through hundreds of them. If someone can’t tell you’re a good actor or right for a part in the first 30 seconds (which is where you have your best stuff), how is holding their eyes open “Clockwork Orange” style for another five minutes going to help? You want the best up front and it all has to be the best. Don’t make someone watch something that is not great or relevant to what you are going after. Have five reels and submit the one that is relevant for the project you are interested in. Think different.

When not to show it. Don’t use your reel when you can use yourself. If you meet someone at a party and they are producing something and you both agree that you might be right for the part, don’t tell them to watch your reel. You are just giving them reasons to change their mind. Imagine if you were at a car dealer and you say, “I’ll take it,” and the salesman says, “Hold on a second. There are a few more things I’d like to tell you about the car.” What? Did you hear me? Draw up the paperwork or you might lose the sale. Even if someone meets you and then asks for it, try to delay them and get in front of them for an audition or a meeting. Your reel is never going to be as good as you are. Close them! Everything you do or say can go one of two ways— good or bad. Your reel is not likely going to be the deal-maker, but it could easily be the deal-breaker. To quote the movie, “The Boost” (1988) starring James Woods and Sean Young, “You already made the sale. Don’t buy it back.” I told my membership this same thing about their headshot. Don’t think of ways to get further away from someone. Think of ways you can get closer. Suggest meeting at their office on Monday.

How to show it. The best way to show your reel is with a private link that can only be used by the person you send it to. You don’t want copies of your work showing up all over the place, especially if it is copyrighted. Put it on your website if you have one, but it should be viewable on request. Otherwise, how do you know who is viewing it. Worried not everyone can see it? Why would you want everyone to see it? Not everyone can hire you and trust me there is not a lot of “You should have seen this reel I stumbled on today” talk. Having random people see your reel is of no value and could be damaging. Would you show up at some unknown location in front of unknown people for an audition? If you live in L.A., you don’t need to answer, but if you’re elsewhere, you probably wouldn’t do that.

Your demo reel can be a very useful tool. It can get people excited about bringing you in if they don’t know you or to bring you in for something they didn’t know you could do. That’s about it though. It’s not a substitute for your skills, relationships, or self-promotion. A reel is a lot like a gun. It can be invaluable in certain sticky situations, but in the hands of the wrong person it can cause more harm than good, so keep it locked in the closet until you know how to use it.

Like this advice? Check out more from our Backstage Experts!

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David Patrick Green
David Patrick Green is a professional actor and the founder of Hackhollywood.com, a membership-based website dedicated to empowering and educating actors around the globe on how to become a professional actor.
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