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The Truth About Demo Reels

Let me set the record straight about “demo reels” because I’m tired of seeing the wrong thing.  Filmmakers pay attention.  Here’s what producers are looking for:

1.  Finished pieces.  We want to know if you can tell a story and if you understand the totality of a project.

2. Specifics.  Tell us if you ran camera, if you directed, if you were production manager, or whatever.  Don’t send us a commercial you catered and lead us to believe you were the director.  Trust me, we’ll find out sooner or later.

3.  Easy to watch.  Send us a link, but don’t make it a tiny thumbnail screen.  Make it big enough to view. Vimeo or Wiredrive size is fine.  We don’t need DVD quality right off the bat.  First we want to know if it’s something we’re interested in.  Send a DVD and it will sit on my desk for a month or two lost in the stack.  Send a link, and I’ll watch it pretty quickly.

4.  Make it current.  If your graphics and effects look like the 80’s, get it off the reel.

What we don’t want:

1.  Those  quick cut “compilation” reels of your life’s work set to a hip current song.  Total loser strategy.  You can compile anything and make it look decent – especially if you’re pulling from your last 25 projects.

2.  Someone else’s work.  I had a director send me a reel that included spots I had directed.  Boy, was the meeting awkward for that guy.

3.  Appropriate stuff.  Don’t send me hot tub spots if I’m looking for a director of serious drama.  In fact, don’t send me hot tub spots – ever.

Edit mercilessly.  Think about it.  It’s not about how cool you think your work is, it’s about what a producer is looking for at that moment.  Step back, breathe, and take it all in perspective.  I love Francis Ford Coppola’s quote after he directed Apocalypse Now.  He said that after 2 years up to his a*s in alligators, a star having a heart attack, and the nightmare of shooting a Viet Nam war movie, after the screening, the first thing the audience thinks is “OK, where should we go eat?”

I’m not sure what that has to do with demo reels, but I love the quote…  🙂

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  1. I had the same thing happen to me on the print side — a clown I worked with years ago sent his resume and samples to me looking for freelance work. Funny thing, I had married and had a new last name and he had no clue who he was mailing it to. His resume claimed to have had my job; and the samples from that part of his life were all mine.

    I could not help but call the guy up….

  2. #3 is very important, i.e., APPROPRIATE STUFF. Don’t send a producer your SPORTS interviews if you’re up for a COMMERCIAL, or GIFT OFFERS if you’re being considered for REALITY. It’s confusing, and won’t get you the gig.

    One of the beauties of Vimeo is one can create “Albums” of one’s different clips based on genres. I have 8 Albums, ranging from commercials to fundraising to travel. I send a link to the proper album based on what the producer or show execs are looking for genre-wise. If it’s a travel show, they get the travel album. Period.

  3. Also, if possible, have in your deal memo (you DO have a deal memo, right?) that you have access to a dubbing master or Quicktime file for demo reel purposes. Be specific, ask nicely. Sometimes a project is proprietary – especially for corporations. Understood. But try to get samples of your work soon after a show or project is done. That means follow-up. If you wait too long, people tend to scatter and no one remembers you or your participation a year later. And NEVER inflate your role on the project. Phil’s right, it’ll come back to bite you.

  4. Good post Phil.  I always hated seeing a reel with no idea what someone did on the project…even if the reel was good they would inevitably land on the bottom of the pile.

    And when it comes to the resume part too… remember you got seconds to make an impression not minutes.

    This is still a pretty small community when it comes to media. One thing to remember is people know other people that know those people. So tell the truth.

  5. What about length? I can see that you want to see completed, well-documented work. But, just how much time are you willing to invest in watching a reel? Even just a handful of examples of complete work can take a while to watch. How long can I count on you watching before you move on?

  6. Another important note to remember: If you are delivering a physical copy of your demo reel, say on DVD, make the label look professional also. A handwritten title with Magic Marker is going to  send a message and not a good one.

  7. Emilio… It all comes down to content and appropriateness. Make sure whatever you send is something that you’ve done that is as close as possible to what the person you’re sending it to is looking for. If it’s a general opening or a lengthy reel, make sure you’re VERY best stuff is up front, regardless of age.

    If you have quality work, they will watch for as long as they need to to make their decision. That is not to say you should put your 28 minute short up first and hope they get the gist of your storytelling. You have to make it manageable. There’s no hard and fast rule, but remember people, especially people who work in media who think in terms of frames or fields, not seconds, are impatient. Make an impact early on.

    When I worked in News, I assisted the News Director, watching demo reels for new reporters. Most tapes (it was a while back) were ejected within 3 SECONDS

    You want to *really* impress a producer you’re trying to get a job with, do a silent short. 3-7 minutes, where you tell the story solely with visuals (and I don’t mean just throw your copy up on grfx through the piece). And if you can’t tell the story like that, work on it on your own time until you can – trust me, you will benefit from it, your storytelling skills will escalate if you are willing to make the time to learn and do it right.

    Here is a great example, visuals so strong they break through the language barrier:

    “Fede Alvarez scored his million-dollar deal based on the heat generated by “Ataque de panico!” (Panic Attack), a four-minute, 48-second short about an apocalyptic robot attack Alvarez directed through his commercial production house for less than $500.”

  8. As someone who just graduated college, I am left with the poor quality and absurdity of school projects for my demo reel. How do I manage to impress a potential employer with my reel without the quality of work that comes from years of professional experience?

  9. This wasn’t a visual demo reel but a guy trying to get a radio announcing job from me in LA sent me a demo tape of voices he’d dubbed off the radio and presented them as HIS. All different announcers. The last one I recognized as Dan Ingram from New York’s WABC and that’s when I blew the whistle on him…some high school kid trying to break into the business. I asked him if he thought I’d just shrug off the fact he lied after I hired him and really couldn’t deliver those voices? Amazing.

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