The hardest part of booking a good act might be getting agents to see it. In this first of a two-part article, we ask a panel of experts for advice on what makes them interested in an act … and what common mistakes to avoid.
Ask a dozen casting agents what they want to see in a demo reel, and you might get a dozen different answers. We know, because we asked a bunch of experts, and they all gave us different answers! Don’t be discouraged though. That variety teaches the most important lesson, and we’ve gleaned some other universal truths from our experts.
1. Know your audience. Unfortunately, you can’t just make one demo reel that works for every job. Luckily, it’s easier than ever to create custom videos for each agent you approach, and you’ll look like a real pro when you tailor your presentation for what that agent wants to see.
Always check the receiver’s website to find out how much video what they want to see. If it doesn’t say, you might want to follow these guidelines:
- If you’re an act contacting an agent for the first time, send less than two minutes of material. Really. Respect their time and experience. If you peak their interest, they can always ask you for more, but if you send too much and bore them, don’t expect to hear back! One advantage to posting your video on YouTube is that you can include a link to your full act, which should appear without edits.
- If you’re a touring show contacting a presenter, send live performance video of your complete show. Presenters are particularly interested in seeing how your audience responds to you, so use live sound, and choose a show with a full and enthusiastic audience. Some performers provide free tickets and even alcohol to audience members to butter them up for taping.
- Follow the instructions. If a company gives instructions on its website, follow them. For example, Cirque du Soleil is incredibly specific about what it wants to see, beginning with a spoken introduction and skills demonstration before you show your act. Brigitte Scherrer, Cirque du Soleil acrobatic talent scout, stresses how important this is: “We want to see the performer’s personality, the energy, the passion … Not only what you do but who you are. … [We’re] looking for people who will be comfortable in a team environment. No stars.”
2. Show your best work. This sounds obvious; you’re trying to sell your act, right? But you wouldn’t believe how many agents told us they get reels of jugglers dropping, aerialists falling, and acrobats missing their tricks. Everyone makes mistakes. You don’t need to include yours on your video! Also, your best work doesn’t necessarily include your hardest tricks. Our experts all told us they only want to see tricks you can perform smoothly with polish.
3. Be different. Peter Dubinsky, president of Firebird Productions, says the single most important quality he looks for is originality. “I try to determine how an act differs from other acts of the same genre and why this act in particular is better than others.” Casting agents see a lot of videos. Cirque du Soleil receives over 12,000 submissions every year and watches every single one within three weeks of receiving it. Don’t bother showing that you can do the same thing as everyone else. Show them something memorable. Peter says, “If I can see a new trick, a new apparatus, or a new idea, then I will definitely pay attention to the video.” On the other hand, “If I see an act that has tricks that have already been replicated 99 times, such an act will not spark my interest.”
4. Choose the appropriate format. Most agents these days prefer URL links, but some want DVDs, and large companies like Cirque du Soleil and Franco Dragone Entertainment Group only accept applications through their own casting websites. If you are submitting to a website, check the file restrictions carefully to make sure your video is in an acceptable format. If you mail a DVD, be sure to send it in the region of the receiving agent. It’s hard for American agents to view PAL videos or for Europeans to view NTSC ones.
5. Include your contact info. Most casting agents recommend you include your name and contact information in the video itself. You can speak your introduction, include it as a written “slate,” or both. If you send an agent a link to your video on YouTube, make sure the YouTube account has your full name (or act name) and contact information. Don’t count on the agent keeping the e-mail you sent with the video. If they’re interested, some agents may ask you for an “agent-friendly” video with no contact information so that they can send it to clients, but if they can’t remember who sent them the video, they can’t book you!
6. Make sure you show. All of the agents we talked to stressed that video quality wasn’t as important as act quality, but they also all had tales of not being able to see what they needed to see. Don’t send blurry, shaky, or grainy video, and the shots should be close enough to show the action. We also heard casting agents complain about baggy costuming that prevented them from seeing the performer’s technique.
7. Present selectively. Structuring your video is different from structuring your act. Most acts end with the best trick, but our experts agreed you should start your video with your strongest material to grab the viewer’s attention right away. If you save it till the end, they may not see it. Also, make sure each clip adds new information. Do not repeat the same or even very similar tricks.
Stay tuned for part two, in which we’ll provide music tips and advice for how to communicate with agents about your video.
Special thanks to our circus industry experts! Peter Dubinsky is president of Firebird Productions, Inc., a Florida, USA-based company that produces live circus, variety and ice shows for circus venues and theme parks around the world. Before founding Firebird in 1996, Peter was director of the Moscow Circus. Brigitte Scherreris an acrobatic talent scout for Cirque du Soleil in Montreal, Canada, specializing in circus performers and athletes. She performed for over a decade on an aerial acrobatics apparatus she created: the triple rope. Brigitte has worked as an agent, producer, stage manager, and special events coordinator, and she runs her own production and casting company.
Related content: How to Make the Perfect Demo Reel Part 2.