We never cease to be amazed by young (and not-so-young) actors who arrive in Hollywood with resumes replete with film and television credits, yet minus the video clips to back them up. “Why?”, we ask them, “don’t you have any tape?”. The answers invariably fall into one of two categories: 1. “I never asked the producers for it”, or 2. “I couldn’t track it down after the shoot was finished”.
If your answer is #1, above, we’re inclined to say “shame on you”, but then we have to remind ourselves that novice actors may never have been told that acquiring tape for a demo is a necessity in the Big City. Apparently, acquiring it for posterity doesn’t compute, either.
If you’re in the #2 category, though, you have lots of company. The most common reason for losing track of your on-camera work is that it was a student film and the student graduated (or washed out) without ever completing it and/or without giving you your much-deserved copy. It doesn’t seem to matter which university was involved; student filmmakers everywhere suffer from the same lack of focus on the people who made their masterpiece possible in the first place: The actors!
While there is no sure-fire way to safeguard your access to a copy of your work, we do have a suggestion: Before agreeing to appear in any student film, have the producer/director/writer (often the same person) fill out a form giving you not only his current contact information, but also a phone number (possibly of his parents) where someone will always know how to reach him. BETTER YET, make him give you the name and number of the professor in charge of his project. The implied threat is that if he disappears on you, you will go directly to his professor to complain and track him down. (We don’t suggest that you say this overtly. It’s really not a good idea to intimidate the person who is “hiring” you, even if you aren’t receiving a dime for your work…!)
But let’s face it: Aside from a learning experience, the main part of your “pay” is the demo you receive from a student or independent film. Why would you not make every effort to obtain that footage?!
WHAT GOES ON THE DEMO?
Your best work, that’s what.
Most professional demos begin with the actor’s name on a title card, often accompanied by a still photo (so that the person viewing it knows instantly which actor in the first scene is the actor in question). There was a trend some years ago of actors opening their demos with a montage of stills or short film clips, sometimes accompanied by some pretty wild music, in order to “get the ball rolling”. The only thing this did was annoy the people who had to sit through it, waiting to get to the meat of the demo – the acting! Save your time and money (and the possibility of irritating the wrong person), and go right into your scenes after you’ve “slated” your name.
On a demo, it’s quality that counts, not quantity. If you only have a couple of pieces that show your work off to its best advantage, that’s perfectly fine. Don’t worry about “filler”. The more you work on-camera, the more footage you’ll have to edit in, but in the meantime, just show off your existing good scenes. If you’re unsure of their demo-worthiness, ask someone you trust (no, not your mom or best friend!) to give you an honest opinion. We’re more interested in your acting ability than the production values, so try to keep that in perspective.
Some people label the scenes with the name of the project. Unless it’s a feature film that was actually released or a TV show, don’t bother. Nobody cares. If you really think it’s important, you can always list the scenes on the packaging, in the jewel case.
Speaking of the packaging, it’s a really smart idea to show your current headshot on the front of the jewel case and your resume on the back. That’s easier to do than you might think.
HOW LONG SHOULD A DEMO BE?
There is no hard and fast rule, but we wouldn’t go longer than 5 minutes. Have your most recent and strongest work at the beginning of the demo. That way, if the viewer gets bored or has seen enough in the first couple of minutes, it won’t matter that the remainder of the demo isn’t being watched. We’ve seen plenty of really strong demos that were less than 2 minutes long.
If you’re fortunate (and talented) enough to have both dramatic and comedic material, you’d be well-served to create separate tracks for your demo. That makes it much more convenient and pertinent for the audience.
WHAT MEDIUM SHOULD A DEMO BE ON?
DVDs are the medium du jour. Most agencies and casting offices do still have access to VCRs, but you’re going to look rather dated if you present a VHS tape nowadays.
You should also try to provide an on-line link to your demo on a website somewhere. If you don’t know how to do that yourself, ask a friend or pay someone to do it for you. It’s definitely worth it if you’re serious actor.
As new media is evolving, who knows what’s next? Keep your eye on the industry and try to evolve with it…eventually.
INCLUDE YOUR CONTACT INFO
Most demos end with a repeat of the actor’s name and his contact info. If you have an agent or manager, now’s the time to list them. Ditto listing your own website, if you have one.
Remember: Your DVD may become separated from its case. Both of them should show your contact info.
WHERE CAN YOU HAVE A DEMO EDITED?
Well, that depends on where you are, of course. Editing is editing, but producing a great looking demo usually requires that the editor have a good eye for cutting together various disjointed scenes and making them look interesting. If you can wait until you’re actually in L.A. or New York, you’ll probably have to pay a little more, but it may well be worth it to work with a professional demo editor. Once you’ve settled here (or there), you’ll find loads of them.
WHAT IF YOU DON’T HAVE ANY MATERIAL FOR A DEMO?
Don’t worry. You will sooner or later. It is rarely a good idea to “create” demo footage and taped stage plays generally look awful. That’s another reason why we highly recommend trying to book student films. They may not turn out to be “glorious Technicolor”, but their entire raison d’etre is to try to look professional. Hopefully, you will, too.
As with most aspects of show biz, there are companies in existence who continually come up with clever ways to separate actors from their money. Among them are companies that will shoot footage of the actor “just being him or herself”. We’ve seen dozens of these so-called “actor slates” and they scream “amateur” to us, as in “I don’t have any other kind of tape to show you, so ta-dah, here I am, folks, just hoping you’ll think I’m cute!”. We generally don’t.
UPDATE: April, 2009
We recently found a very impressive company that will create, from scratch, a really professional-looking demo for those of you who may not have enough good, solid tape to put together a “real” demo. So, contrary to what we generally say about these companies, here is the info on this particular one. If any others come our way, we’ll be sure to share…
Steve Ackerman, a veteran Director of Photography in Commercials,Television and Film, will shoot and edit Scenes, Monologues, Hosting and Skill Clips ( from Juggling ,Skateboarding to Horseback Riding and Ballet Dancing ), for personal Reels and Online Clips. www.thereelmaker.com