Demo Reels: When to Hire a Studio?
These days, getting high quality footage for your demo reel can be a challenge, so it's no wonder actors are asking about the value in hiring studios to produce your clips or demo reels. Demo Reel creation studios tend to be more common in LA or NYC or Atlanta, but are totally worth discussing. There are some super reputable companies like ReelArc or JigReel or Relentless Filmworks that churn out scenes for actor reels. And many actors find great success in utilizing them to help create their #reels. But it’s super essential to know how and when to use them.
WHEN MIGHT BE GOOD TO USE A DEMO REEL CREATOR STUDIO?
If you’ve got a good #reel and a competitive resume, but seem to be missing one of your most castable types or genres of footage, hiring a studio to flesh out or otherwise fill in your existing reel might really serve you. This is best utilized if you are already a working actor, who’s already been in training for a few years, but you just have not been able to track down necessary footage.
If this doesn’t describe the current state of your career, then hold off. (more on that later)
If you're following down this path:
Research the companies you're considering and watch samples of their work
One scene/clip should cost under $1,000
Consider: If you're adding to a reel, your new footage won’t need to be longer than 30 seconds but, for purposes of putting on your casting profile, you might want it to be as long as 1-2 minutes
Check out not only the quality of the footage in their examples, but the writing and acting performances (as it will indicate how well they write for and direct these actors)
Ask if their footage includes post-production editing (color grading, foley, etc)
And make sure they are collaborators who are willing to make revisions -- if the script is bad or the edit doesn't look like a real scene while featuring you, primarily, then you’ve wasted your time and money
Also: Be prepared to still hire an editor to incorporate your new clip into your current reel, and trim down anything that isn’t necessary. Remember: with reels, the story doesn't matter... your work does. Each clip in your reel needs to allow us to see you, believably in the circumstances of a character.
WHY SHOULD I HOLD OFF ON HIRING A STUDIO TO CREATE REEL FOOTAGE?
THEY CAN BE EXPENSIVE
Some studios charge literal THOUSANDS of dollars per clip. At that point, you could self-produce a project, have creative control, get that film up on IMDb AND submit it to festivals. It’s more work -- but absolutely worth it for the value it will have on your resume.
Generally speaking, if you are experienced, trained, and talented enough to need a reel, you should be getting paid to work; not paying to get a reel’s worth of footage.
Early in your career your first investment isn't in a reel or headshots. It's always, always training first.
THE WRITING WON'T MEASURE UP
Scenes written for actor reels will never be as strongly written as a 100-page-feature film. The workshopping and the development that goes into producing a film takes months (if not years). There is just zero way that a one-minute scene will hold the same value as a fully-produced excerpt from a feature.
In a reel, we don't want to watch actors ‘making the most’ out of something; we want to see them thriving at what they do best.
IT'S HARDER TO PERFORM YOUR BEST WORK WITH LITTLE CONTEXT
Simply put: our job in doing our preparation and script analysis is just harder when our script is only 1 page long. You’ve got less to go on, so you have to work 10 times as hard to make a comparable performance to the roles we see in your competing demo reels.
Without access to the full screenplay, its harder to flesh out that character. Your 10-20 second clip is being measured against footage from fully produced projects (because that's ultimately where reels should come from). In competitive demo reels, actors have a fully stocked library of resources loaded in that 100 page screenplay in which to craft their role. It's going to be a real challenge if you are to create the same calibre of work with like 1% of that information, direction, and resources.
A fully developed script with an arc, context, and purpose to achieve within a larger whole production will always provide you with stronger material to do your best acting.
YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW WHAT KIND OF FOOTAGE YOU NEED
If you don’t know who you are as an actor, it will be hard to know what roles and what footage will best serve you in a reel. Ideally, you should be well-trained and have worked with a coach and your agent (or an industry professional) to determine what kind of footage you need to market YOU as an actor and the sort of roles you play well.
But, oftentimes, early in our careers we just have no clue. A reel studio might have written you the best romantic girl next door scene in the world but if that’s not what you usually book/play/audition for, it's essentially useless.
You must understand who you are to best craft the story that your reel will tell your buyer.
Just like you won’t accept a role in a film if it doesn't feel right for you, your paid demo footage should help tell us how to cast you. If YOU don't even know how to cast you, you will end up with poor choices of clips that feel off and confuse us.
Your reel needs to show us the unique characters only you can play. Lack of specificity and understanding who those types of characters are will leave us with a reel that doesn't help us. It will confuse casting, and leave them not knowing how to cast you.
YOU MIGHT BE PAYING SOMEONE TO DOCUMENT YOUR INEXPERIENCE
you are at 'Tier 1' as an actor
you’ve never been in a professional film before
you’ve never taken an acting class
you don’t know yet how to translate your theatrical training into on-camera work
If any of these apply to you, you are wasting time and money you could be spending on training and other resources. You are actually paying someone to film how green you are.
Casting Directors can look at demo reels and immediately know when that actor has hired a studio. They see your resume and find it disconcerting that you’ve done one film but you somehow have 10 projects on your reel. They can tell from your resume that you haven't taken enough acting classes. And, unfortunately, your reel is unwatchable. And they knew that before they even clicked play. And after they do click play? Their suspicions are confirmed: this actor has never been on set and doesn't know what to do on-camera. They aren’t ready. And no amount of footage will change that.
You cannot buy experience. It won’t serve you to purchase a reel before you’ve got the goods to deliver consistent work and a competitive resume.
It's also why footage created by a demo reel studio should only be used to supplement a pre-existing reel. We, the viewer, shouldn't be able to tell which roles were booked, filmed, fully produced features and which were one off demo scenes.
No reel is better than a bad reel. Always and forever, we mean it. Because when you are just starting out just getting your feet wet and training, we don’t expect you to have a reel and that’s okay. But once you have a reel, those expectations are high. Yes, we need to see and hear you clearly and see that it's been edited to feature you best but your acting has to be killer.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Nothing beats good old-fashioned hard work. It’s absolutely okay to be where you are in your career. If you are at a stage in your career where you don’t have a reel yet, embrace it! You have time. And thank goodness you do! You can craft the artist that you are with training and flesh out your on-camera technique with real life on-set experience over the course of your next 3-5 bookings. The time spent building a reel is well worth the outcome.
Your reel is a trailer of you at your best. And getting to your best takes time.
But! If you have a reel and and a strong resume of credits and feel like you really know what you are doing as an actor... and really just need some comedic footage to level up your reel... by all means, go for it! Do your research, don’t spend too much money, and be sure to consult with your agent or coach to make sure you know exactly what your reel needs-- and then get that sweet, savory footage.
Clare Lopez is an Actress and Director of Education and Outreach at Book From Tape Acting Studios in Orlando, FL. She is deeply passionate about supporting fellow actors in their craft, and loves using storytelling to educate, elevate, and empower others. Email Clare