Mona Lee on Actor Demo Reels
by Mona Lee
As many of you know, the Austin Callback Showcase is asking for actors to submit demo reels for a spot in Acts 1, 2 or 3 of their showcase. I wanted to share with you an article from The BIZ Directory about actors reels. It might help to inform those of you who want to use the showcase competition to kickstart the creation of your very own professional actors reel.
"What's a 'real'?" Sergio wanted to know. "I called up an agency and the agent said he needed 'real.' I told him, 'I am real. I'm as real as they get, man.' The dude hung up on me. These agents are starting to piss me off." Reel, Serge. R-E-E-L, as in "videotape or DVD" "Do you have a reel?" is one of the first questions many L.A. talent agents ask, and that is starting to catch on with the more exclusive Texas agencies as well. More casting directors and agents are accepting videotapes or DVDs from Texas actors. As I dragged out a box of tapes, I told Sergio, "A reel is a half-inch VHS or three-quarter-inch video or DVD made up of clips from previous jobs. Actors leave their audition tapes or disks for prospective clients to view so they can get acquainted with the actor's work. The purpose of the reel is to show how you come across on camera, the 'type' you are, and to show as much acting range as you can in under six minutes." "Six minutes, that's all?" Sergio protested. "Shorter is better, unless you've got a drop-dead dramatic scene. Don't try to put too much on the reel. These people are busy. If you want your talents to be judged by those who don't yet know your work, Sergio, you may want to consider putting a reel together."
I put a tape in the VCR. In Texas, professional actors have two different kinds of audition tapes or DVDs-- one that showcases the commercials and industrials they've done (called a "commercial reel") and one that has clips of film and television work (called a "film reel"). We watched a poor-quality commercial reel first. Sergio picked up right away what was wrong with the tape. "It looks all fuzzy. I can't tell it's her tape. There's too much focus on other things-- not enough of the actress talking." Right! Make no mistake: quality counts when you make a reel. And it's your tape or disk. It should showcase you. "I don't have anything of me on-camera. I guess I'm out of luck finding an agent," said Sergio. "First of all, Sergio, you're a young, gorgeous Hispanic man who speaks Spanish fluently. When you mail in your photos, they'll see that and I'll bet they call you in for an interview. If they give you a chance to audition, they will see you are real. You'll blow 'em away." I showed Sergio some tapes of former students who, when they first started out, didn't have any on-camera work either. A career takes time. Like the I-Ching says, "Persistence furthers."
The reel should start with your name and your agent's phone number. Some actors follow their names with a headshot, others create fancy introductions using different photos and effects. It's better to keep all that jazzy stuff to a minimum. Get right into the opening title of your best clip-- BANG! Everybody is busy. If you don't hook them right away, they may not view the entire reel, so only use scenes that really demonstrate your talent. Most people know that your clips weren't as important to the director as showcasing the show's star, but hopefully, you'll have a few moments in which you really shine. Two to five short clips 30 to 40 seconds long of different roles and subjects usually work well. Make sure that you're the focus of the clip, not some other actor. Choose scenes with an opposite-sex actor, so you're not competing for attention with someone of your same type. Use scenes with substance that feature your character in relationships with others. You will be critiqued by how honestly you listen and react. The more versatile you look, the better. As you book work, update your reel. It's good to have it ready when you need it. At the end of your last clip, repeat your name and contact information.
Professional actors know to ask for a copy of their work after the job has been edited. While on the set, they'll ask around to find the contact person to call after the job has been completed. For commercials and industrials, it's usually the production company; for film and TV, it's the producers or studio. Sending a three-quarter-inch tape or DVD to the contact person to dub your scenes onto is better than dubbing onto half-inch tapes. When you go to make your master, the quality will be better than editing from half-inch tape. If you can't find a piece of work you've appeared in, Jan's Video Editing in Hollywood has an extensive video library of films and television movies and may have the piece you're looking for. If they don't have it and you call ahead, they will run off a copy of your work the next time it airs on television. It's worth spending money to get "air checks" taped on three-quarter-inch tape by a service like Jan's. You'll get much better quality than taping it yourself from TV or a rented video.
Professional videotape and DVD editing companies charge by the hour (rates vary from $50 on up, per hour) and if you're not organized going in, the finished product will cost you a bundle. Make all of your artistic choices at home-- like what order your pieces will be in and where each piece starts and stops before you go to the studio. Have all your tapes cued up to the clips you want to use. Consult your agent if you have any questions. Check your watch to determine exactly how much time each segment runs so you don't go over the six-minute limit. The average time it takes an editor to make up a five-to six-minute reel is between three and four hours, so the total cost will run from $250 to $500.
The video company will give you a master of your reel which they will use to run off copies for you to distribute to casting directors and agents. You should keep the master of the edited tape. Have about five half-inch VHS copies, one three-quarter-inch, and two DVD copies made, maybe even a couple of Beta Max. It's good to have at least one or two of each type. Charlie Gouveia of American Media Solutions can supply you with these different kinds of media at a very good price. The number for AMS is 619-9701. Most professional video companies can transfer your master to these kinds of tapes.
Put your name and address on the tapes and also on the boxes they are in. Glue a picture postcard to the videotapes. Agents and Directors can't see your name and face too often. You should offer to be responsible for your own tapes at all times. It's your agent's job to persuade casting directors to accept your tape for viewing and then it's your job to mail the tape. In general it's not a good idea to send unsolicited tapes. When you receive an invitation to view your tape, always include a self-addressed mailer so the casting director can mail the tape back after it's been viewed. Keep track of your tapes by creating a log of names, addresses, and dates of tapes sent and when the tape was returned to you. After a few weeks, if you haven't heard from the agents or casting directors, drop them a note inquiring politely as to whether they've had a chance to view your reel.
If you don't have very much good work, wait to make your tape. If you've never done any on-camera work, it's best not to do a homemade tape for casting directors. It won't be viewed for more than ten seconds. The quality of the tape reflects on you. Bad camera direction, sound, and lighting only irritate busy casting directors. The only time putting together a nonprofessional tape is worth it, in my opinion, is when you want to keep your talent agent informed of your development. Some film acting classes shoot scenes well. It's okay to edit the tape and show it to your agent, just let them know beforehand that it consists of class work. Give them the option as to whether or not they'd like to see it. Don't surprise them. Instead, do like Sergio, who is now cast in some graduate thesis films at UT. After our talk he went to the film department and plastered notices on all the bulletin boards advertising himself as an actor. It worked. He immediately got calls. Graduate students have to raise a lot of money to produce their thesis films. They are shot with state-of-the-art digital cameras. Most radio, television, and film departments have talented students desperately looking for actors. Work in low-budget Indie films. Look in the "Organizations" section of The BIZ Directory and join local film societies. Go where the filmmakers are hanging out. Become buddies with the talented young directors in your area. A good way to be known as a lead actor in films is to start as the lead in Indie films. Don't wait for Hollywood to come to you. Generate your own projects. If you can't do that, roll up your sleeves and work hard for someone else who can raise the money.