If you’re an actor and you don’t have a reel showcasing your work, you’re doing it VERY wrong. It doesn’t matter how much or little experience you have, if you’re pursuing an acting career, a reel (or showreel for non-US readers) can be the first step in getting work you’ll be able to book again and again.
The number one question casting directors have about actors they don’t know is this: is this actor a good fit for the role I’m casting?
To answer that question, they need to see your work. Your work is on your reel.
Don’t have a reel? They don’t get their answer and they move on to the next actor who does, and that actor gets your audition spot.
Even if the casting director knows you, they may still need your reel to help support your case because the showrunner, writers, producers or director might need to see more of your work than just your audition. A casting director isn’t the only decision maker on a project, they’re just the first layer of decision makers most actors encounter.
So since it’s a must-have, how do you put together an effective reel? Depending on where you are in your career, this answer will vary. But stay with me, because whether you’re a beginner or seasoned pro, there are some universal truths about all acting reels.
The whole point of your reel is to establish credibility with someone who doesn’t know you. The best way to do that is to show viewers some outstanding acting. If that isn’t so hot, nothing else in the reel matters. More training is the only answer.
Let’s assume the acting is solid. The second way to build credibility is to show viewers that you’re aware of who you are as an actor. Remember, casting directors need to see that you fit the description of the role for which they’re bringing you in, and that you can actually do the work.
So just as your head shots should look like you, the scenes on your reel should hit the bullseye regarding the kinds of roles you play.
“But Chris,” you say, “I’m an actor! I can play any role!”
That may be true, but in the fast-paced world of TV and film casting, you’ll be brought in only for roles for which you seem really right.
This starts with a look. If you look like a suburban Mom, you’re not going to be brought in to play a wealthy globetrotting social media influencer (unless the character description mentions that she also looks like a suburban Mom).
So your reel should contain scenes of your path-of-least-resistance kind of roles. That speaks to self awareness and finding your type, which is a whole other subject I’ll tackle another time.
No one is born with a reel, they need to be created. The footage must come from somewhere. You can either grab it from work you’ve done in the past or you create scenes for the reel. The more credible the footage, the greater credibility you have.
Here is the hierarchy of showreel footage sources, listed from most to least credible:
1. Buzzworthy, award-winning movies and TV shows
2. Well-known, but undecorated movies and TV shows
3. Professionally produced, nationally distributed studio- and network-funded projects
4. Pilots or pilot presentations which never got picked up
5. Indie short/feature length films on the festival circuit
6. High quality web series, self-produced or not (especially if they have a lot of views)
7. High quality productions you create with friends/acquaintances, including student films
8. Scenes from an acting class
9. Self-tape auditions
Why this order? Credibility comes from association as much as an actor’s ability.
At the top of this list are projects that make casting say, “Wow, they were in this? Why don’t I know them?” The middle of the list makes casting say, “This person has worked, and they probably won’t make me look bad, so let’s bring them in.” The bottom of the list gets into tricky territory, but it’s where most actors start, and there’s no shame in starting there.
Anyone can be a good actor if they stand in front of a camera with a great coach and a lot of time, so content created just for a reel doesn’t carry the credibility as well as that other work does. Casting might still have questions about you. “They seem like they can act, but can they do it on short notice with all the craziness that comes with working on a professional set?”
I hear you. Getting booked on a show is much easier said than done, so the reality is that it may take a while before your footage comes from the top half of that list. But that’s actually a good thing, because if you’re the one creating the scenes, you have complete control over the roles you play, as well as your performance in them.
On the other hand, when you’re cast in a show, the scene they broadcast is what you get. You may or may not like your performance, the editing, how you look, how little screen time you have with respect to the series regulars, etc. So while footage from a big budget network show is valuable in the credibility department, there may be other things about it which lower it’s value.
I’ve had scenes edited in such a way that it doesn’t make sense to include in a reel, because there just wasn’t much for casting to see.
If you’re going to be creating your reel from scratch, there are things you can do to up the credibility of the sources on the bottom half of that list. I’ll cover that, along with other things to keep in mind, in part 2 of this series.