A showreel or demo reel, as it’s referred to in certain countries, is of paramount importance for actors. As much of the main focus of the acting industry is film, television and streaming services, agents and casting agents will invariably want to see your work on camera before signing you or bringing you in for an interview. So how do we create a showreel that captivates the viewer and leads to more professional opportunities?
Updated 6 August, 2021.
A showreel is no longer one fixed thing. There used to be a very clear definition of what a reel should be: actors would fret over the perfect edit of their work and put it all together on a DVD (or VHS!). At the end of the process, it was a tangible thing you could hold in your hands and send out in the mail. This fixed notion of a reel still persists, but in the current industry climate it’s far less relevant: speed-reels, self-tape reels, monologues to camera, runtimes from one to seven minutes … many actors, today, have showreels that differ wildly from the traditional norm. Instead of obsessing over how to create the perfect showreel, it is better to think about what purpose it serves when you send it out into the industry. What is your goal?
The Two Main Goals of a Showreel
The first goal is to sign with an agent or manager. Actors will send out a showreel to pique an agent’s interest, establish their name in reputable circles and kick-start their career. The other option is to help you book more work. In today’s industry, this usually means listing it on a casting profile so that casting directors, producers and directors can see your work directly, and hopefully bring you in for an audition (or better still, just give you the role!).
Though you may use the same reel for both purposes, it’s important to know why you are creating a reel in the first place. This will help you know what scenes to look for, how long it should be, and how to best create a showreel that will actually help your acting career.
For instance: if you are trying to sign with an agent as a young actor, sending a seven-minute epic with every short film you have ever done spliced together is a terrible idea. You will bore them to death and likely never hear back! However, if you are a very experienced actor who has worked a lot on film and TV, having a longer reel showcasing your range and professional work can be a great idea. It helps showcase your experience and shows the industry your range and versatility. In this case, it is serving as more of a visual CV.
So always know what you are going after, and create a reel to suit that goal. We’ll touch upon this more in the sections below.
The Options for Showreels
These three methods are the main ways actors put together showreels. All can be effective, and which option you take will depend on time, budget and where you are at in your career.
#1 Pay for a professional reel.
A professional showreel, produced by showreel companies and sold to you as a complete package, is often the simplest way to get started. The reels themselves are usually made up of two-to-three scenes and last as long; they have a high production value and you will end up with a solid final product (which is often, unfortunately, not the case when you do it yourself). If you meet with a showreel company that you vibe with, you have the money to invest and you like their previous work (run a mile if they don’t provide examples online) then this option is a great way of capturing and packaging your work.
#2 Make a reel using previous work.
The second option is piecing together a reel from your existing professional work—this is what is commonly thought of when we talk about showreels. Of course, not everybody has done professional work, or enough to make up a full showreel. If this is you, you may have to wait until you have worked a few more film and TV jobs. A lot of actors piece together reels from short films and student films. In almost all cases, this is a mistake. The quality of these films is usually just not good enough and even if they were well made, the quality of writing and acting is usually pretty low. Reels like this usually work. If you have worked on some really awesome projects—maybe some higher-budget short films or web-series—you can definitely use those, but just try to avoid filling your reel with mediocre short film clips. Remember that the acting needs to be the focus. If your acting doesn’t look amazing, don’t include it. The end.
#3 Make your own showreel with friends.
Another option is to make a reel with your friends. This might mean teaming with some directing mates, or getting in touch with some film students. We will talk more about this at the end of the article, but it can be a great first step for actors. Just remember, if you are shooting something yourself, to keep it really simple. You will probably be using a minimal setup, so shoot a scene that isn’t too fancy and doesn’t involve complicated design or lighting setups.
#4 Self-tape showreel.
Your final option is to put together a showreel using professionally shot self-tapes (you can shoot them yourself at home, but make sure you’ve got a nice looking set-up or book in at a self-tape studio). These days, a lot of casting directors are happy to watch self-tapes from actors as that’s often how they’re working anyway. In some cases, they even prefer it! If you’re just starting out, this is a very affordable and achievable option.
NB: You can, of course, also use a combination of all four of these options to make a cracking showreel. But do avoid having self-tapes with professionally filmed work as it can be a bit jarring. Keep your reel in the same style.
Paying For A Reel? Choose A Reputable Company
This seems pretty self-evident. However, you would be surprised at how many over-priced, poor-quality showreel companies are out there. Always ask your peers for advice, and get a second opinion on the samples the company provides via their website and socials. If you know people who have worked with a particular company, look at their showreel to see what aspects you like. Ask your friends how it was to work with the company they used. The quality of the showreel is important, but you also need to feel comfortable with the team/director who is shooting it. Some professionals take pride in making showreels for actors, others see the experience as ‘beneath’ them in contrast to other professional jobs.
Choose An Appropriate Scene
Make sure you have chosen a great scene. Something you are comfortable acting, but that also showcases your ability and range. If you have no preference for the roles you play, we would recommend doing something short and simple that plays to around two minutes. But if you want to put yourself out there as a particular type of actor, choose a scene that plays to that style or character. It is always important to think about what work you really want to do, and what your strengths are as an actor.
Find A Good Scene Partner
Don’t just ask anyone to help you out with your showreel. Acting is reacting, and having a good scene partner will help your showreel immensely. Make sure it’s someone you trust, feel comfortable with and someone who is committed to making your work look its best. Often you can split the cost between you and your scene partner, which is great. But make sure if the showreel is for both of you, one of you isn’t losing out. Find a scene that is great for both. This may take some time, but is a worthwhile investment if the alternative is to re-shoot.
Rehearse And Prepare Thoroughly
Make sure you are well-rehearsed before you start the shoot. It is likely things will change on the day, so the more comfortable you are with your lines and the scene in general, the freer you will be to play and experiment. If you are doing your scene with a friend, meet up in advance and do some rehearsal. You do want to keep it spontaneous, so don’t rehearse to death—but definitely make sure you are both confident with the lines and have a shared visual for the scene.
The same should be said for preparation if you’re producing the showreel yourself. Have all equipment, set, design etc. ready to go, so your only thought on the day is of your performance.
Keep It Short And Sweet
As tempting as it is to showcase all your incredible acting moments, anything over three minutes is TOO LONG. Keep it short and sweet—and only include your best work! Ideally, aim for two to three short scenes. When a casting director clicks on a scene and sees that it’s only sixty to ninety seconds, they are far more likely to invest that short amount of time.
Update It Regularly
We are always growing and learning as actors, and so it’s important that we update our showreels at least ONCE PER YEAR. With any luck, you’ll have new footage from recent jobs to showcase anyway, so get rid of something old and replace it with your new work. Casting directors will appreciate seeing a nice update reel that showcases that actor’s look and talent currently.
Avoid Well-known Scripts
While it might sound like a fun challenge to do Meryl Streep’s scene from Sophie’s Choice, you’re actually doing yourself a disservice. Everyone will immediately recognise that scene from that movie and will automatically be comparing you to Meryl herself. You don’t want that. Find some hidden gems or some personal favourites—you’ve got the Internet at your very fingertips, so use it! Watch more independent films and underrated television series to find great writing. Look beyond what’s trending on Netflix.
Don’t Make It Too Glossy
There is a fine line between “professional” and “glamourous”. Aim for professional—you don’t want your showreel to simply become a showcase of how beautiful you are. It needs to focus on the acting, so don’t go overboard with hair and makeup and romantic locations. Focus on the truth of the scene you’re working on. That’s it.
Do It Yourself
Just remember: you don’t have to go down the route of paying for a professional showreel; in fact, many agents and casting directors prefer self-taped reels unless it contains actual professional footage. Learn more about showreel alternatives.
As with many skills in the actors’ toolkit, sometimes the best way to learn about creating a good showreel is to fail forwards and make a bad one. Hopefully, you recognise this fact before you send it out and can fix any mistakes that have popped up; but as this can be an expensive, time-consuming way to learn, we’ve outlined 9 Showreel Mistakes To Avoid in this short clip below. Take a look and save yourself some heartache!
Your showreel is one of your most important assets as an actor. It’s what will help you sign with a great agent or manager, or give your online casting profiles the edge to make sure you are getting seen by top casting directors. So when it is this crucial to the success of your acting career, why let it be average? Or anything short of breath-taking? Put in the commitment to make sure your reel is as good as it can possibly be!
Whichever path you take, make sure the focus is always on the acting. The only steadfast rule when it comes to showreels and demo reels is that casting directors, producers, and agents, want to see you and your talent.