Actors! 5 Ways You’re Messing Up Your Showreel

I’ve been creating showreels for a very long time. I’ve pretty much made all the mistakes that are possible, but now I still see so many showreel creators out there making the same errors that I did. At first glance, the making of a showreel seems pretty simple; get your best stuff, edit it all together. But there are many nuances to it which is why the reel-edit can be such an anxiety-inducing thing for an actor! Hopefully the tips below will help you get a little clarity on what you’re doing.

So here it is: 5 ways you’re messing up your showreel.

1. You’re trying to look more successful than you are.

You had two lines in a movie and you got to say them to Olivia Coleman. This is a fantastic achievement, you should be proud and yes you should put it on your showreel.

What you shouldn’t do, is find the other two scenes where you were hovering in the background behind Olivia not doing much of anything, just because you feel like it will look like you did more than you did. That scene doesn’t give us any information and the viewer will know exactly what you’re trying to do by adding filler.

A good casting director knows the score. If you said two lines to Olivia Coleman and you said them well, they’ll know you know what you’re doing, and they’ll be prepared to cast you again in something similar or better. What you have achieved up until this point is more than enough. Don’t try to make it look more than it is, because it’ll be more obvious to the viewer than you realise.

2. You’re relying too heavily on the ‘famous’ footage.

Those two lines in the Olivia Coleman project may be your best credit so far, but do they show your talents in the best way?

That’s the Catch 22 as you build footage. In a previous short film you were in, or maybe from-scratch scenes that you paid for, you were the lead character. The story was about you. Maybe you were deciding whether to go to the police, or dump the guy, or make the fraudulent deal. You were driving the narrative! Now you’re in an Olivia Coleman film and your two lines are about passing her a coffee or asking her what the time is.

Which means the exciting thing about the scene with Olivia is that it was a scene with Olivia, but the material itself doesn’t do a lot for you. Of course you still need the scene in your reel, but it’s likely that if you start your reel with it……..

3. You’re not putting your best acting first.

Put your best acting first. Seems obvious, doesn’t it. But so few do it.

Your first scene doesn’t need you jumping off a helicopter or screaming at a partner in a kitchen. It just needs solid acting. A moment the viewer can believe in. I was recently re-watching ‘Cast Away’ and the scene below really hit me because of it’s simplicity. I mean, it’s not simple by any means – doing little is the hardest thing to do.

But it shows great humanity. If you didn’t know who Tom Hanks was and this scene landed on your desk, you’d want to cast him in your project. How many showreels aim to show such subtlety? Very few.


4. You’re afraid of the quiet moments. 

You don’t need to be saying anything to show that you can act. In fact, so often the powerful moments are created by the ones who aren’t speaking much at all. If one character says, ‘I am breaking up with you,’ it’s the reaction of the other character that makes it interesting.

Me directing a showreel scene. Photo by James Everett.

When I used to do edit-only showreels (I’m semi-retired!), actors would often talk about wanting to ‘grab the attention’ of the viewer. “I want a memorable showreel,” they would say. I would always agree with the idea, but not always the actor’s notion of how to get there. The counter-intuitive approach is often best, because I PROMISE you, a casting director will be mesmerised by your reel if you have subtle, quiet moments.

You’ve all seen that terrible showreel, where a man and a woman are in a kitchen screaming at each other because one of them slept with someone else. It’s an awful scene because it’s all noise, and it means absolutely nothing.

There’s a scene on my recent showreels from scratch compilation that I love, because it has this big awkward moment between a couple where they don’t know what to say. You can see it in the clip below, about one minute into the video.

In creating scenes as a screenwriter, that is something that it’s taken me a long time to truly understand – that dialogue isn’t always needed. Silence speaks so much louder.

If you have small, quiet moments in your collection of material, consider giving them priority!

5. You’re not using scenes that show conflict.

I know I just said to use quiet scenes, but that doesn’t mean you should use boring scenes.

The best scenes will usually have a moment of conflict. One character wants to give evidence to the court, the other doesn’t. One partner wants a holiday in Australia, the other wants to go to Peru.

Conflict drives narrative and it should also drive the viewer through your showreel. We’ve all seen that bad student film where two characters get stoned and sit on the sofa talking about food. It’s boring because nothing is happening, there’s no conflict.

YES, a reel is about acting, not the story. BUT, your acting is served so much better when the storytelling is on point.

Thanks for reading! Due to workload I am not currently doing edit-only showreel work, however if you need new, unique scenes that are written for you, I can do that. If you want to drop me an email about that or anything else, you can reach me at dj@danieljohnsonfilms.co.uk.

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