12 Tips for a Successful Film Reel

We’re hiring right now and I’ve spent more than half my life watching film reels. Mildly put, I’ve seen a lot of donkey crap. For those of you looking to solicit work in the film or media industry, here are 12 tips to consider when editing your reel:

1. Make it short. Like one to two minutes short. I don’t have 8 minutes in my day for a hundred different people I don’t know. Convince me in less than two minutes to beg you for more. A reel 15 minutes or longer is borderline insulting.

2. Cut everything together. I will only watch one video per person (unless you impress me). A list of separate clips does not count as a reel. If you are interviewing as a director or editor, I will specifically request longer clips to see how you structure scenes.

3. Use your own voice. Do not imitate or parody movie trailers or other popular videos. No matter how flashy or technically proficient the reel may be, a ripoff reel proves only one thing to me: you are a ripoff.

4. Focus the viewer. Title your reel with the skill you wish to highlight (e.g. “camera operating,” “hair styling,” “lighting,” “visual effects,” etc.). I may enjoy qualities of the production you had nothing to do with – a recipe for awkwardness in interviews. Tell me what to pay attention to in advance.

5. No repetition. Don’t show me the same shot over and over. Don’t even show it to me twice. I will start thinking that’s all you’ve done.

6. Not overly dramatic. You don’t have time to be taken seriously in two minutes. Watching a grown man cry or woman getting raped while I drink tea and check my morning office email is simply uncomfortable.

7. Keep it current. If your reel is from a VHS transfer, unlit basement production or freehand miniDV, I will assume you failed film school or predate colored television. Show me only the latest and greatest. Your sentimental first film means nothing to me.

8. No movie scores. I don’t care how obscure you think the piece of music is. I am a film score connoisseur by trade (and so are most producers in the business); misusing a recognizable piece of music may distract or offend me. If I hear Clint Mansell in a reel one more time, I will adopt heroin and blame you.

9. No popular songs. Unless you worked with Led Zeppelin or Coldplay personally, your reel does not deserve to be tracked with their music. If you try to get away with it, viewers may stop paying attention when your music selection brings them back to high school slumber parties or the junior prom.

10. Easily accessible. Broken links are dead ends. Always make your reel available and never make me ask for it (“upon request” is not considerate, it’s lazy). Make sure your link is easy to find in your email and at the top of your résumé.

11. Stream it. Do not ask me to download a file. That will add at least two unnecessary steps and pollute my hard drive.

12. Vimeo. A poorly designed personal website will distract me and hurt you. Unless your site is a work of art, let Vimeo or YouTube make the first impression. If you feel compelled to host your work on your own site, enable the compression setting “fast start” or “compressed header” so I do not have to wait for the entire clip to buffer before playing (this is one of my biggest and most repairable pet peeves).

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10 Verbs for Leading a Healthy Film Production

1. Inspire. Arouse in your crew an eager want. Remind them that they’re not at a desk. They have the best job in the world. Make them happy about doing what you suggest.

2. Anticipate. Production is like doing a jigsaw puzzle on a waterbed – plan for the worst. Identify at least five things that could go wrong during each scene and plan for them. No shoot is impregnable.

3. Name. A person’s name is the sweetest sound to them in the world. Know everyone’s name. Say it to him or her often and always embed it in every request.

4. Smile. From the bottom of your heart. It’s contagious. A happy set is an efficient set.

5. Listen. Let each person do the talking. Collect as much information as possible. Know everything.

6. Forgive. Never criticize, condemn or complain. If someone made a mistake, he or she already knows and should not have to hear it again. If he or she doesn’t know or makes the mistake a second time, call attention to it indirectly.

7. Assure. Encourage crew by making every fault or mishap seem easy to correct. Be confident. If you are not confident, be confident about not being confident. Get people to feel confident about you.

8. Request. Ask questions instead of directly giving orders. Let the other person feel like the idea is his or hers. Nobody likes being told what to do. And nobody likes being yelled at. Do you?

9. Pacify. Avoid arguments. Never tell someone he or she is wrong. If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically. If you cannot avoid an argument (or cannot resolve other people’s arguments), do not let the crew see it – move ugly out of the way.

10. Praise. Make each person feel important and necessary. Reward good work with honest and sincere appreciation. Acknowledge what each person is doing right. Commend every improvement.

Inspiring Your Team to Do Well [Film Friday]

Leading a film is a lot like leading an army, except without the discipline. Hollywood is loaded with egos, agendas, and hard drugs. Everyone wants to make their rate, see his or her name in lights, eat well, and live the good life. It is extremely difficult to wrangle all the different personalities and angles. Getting everyone on board is very difficult most of the time, especially in low budget or strenuous circumstances. Even with genuine people, it is challenging to arrest their full attention.

There is one tried and true tactic for getting everyone on the same page. The same tactic will inspire people to work day and night to get the job done. The same tactic may even convince your team to cut, defer, or waive their rate entirely. Very straightforward: tell a great story.

If your team believes in the project, they will fight to the ends of the earth for it. A great story helps make a 20-hour day okay. A great story helps you accept the low pay or terrible catering. Of course, telling a great story is easier said than done. The best way to tell a story is to believe in it first. If you do not believe in it, no one else will. When you do, find a way to communicate to everyone why and convince them to believe in it, too. With enough love and passion, you can inspire others to help you bring the story to life. Perhaps they will fall in love with it, too.

Film Friday: Production Value Can Go To Hell

I talk to a lot of filmmakers, artists and business people who dissuade themselves from a venture or project simply because they lack the resources necessary to create a product with “high production value.” I cannot tell you how many films have not been made because producers and directors could not secure the equipment or style they wanted. “It wouldn’t be professional enough!” “It wouldn’t look like a real movie!”

Well, let me tell you something – who gives a damn? Do you think YouTube has become the entertainment monstrosity it has because of high Hollywood-class production value? Hell no. YouTube has exploded because it highlights genuine, human entertainment. Raw, real, honest. Not polished, impersonal shlock.

Pick up a camera (any camera, your cell phone counts) and go tell a personal human story. If you can’t do that, it doesn’t matter how much money or production value you have because NO ONE WILL CARE. Production value is just a cover-up for fear or undeserved elitism. Sure, quality can be important. But story is more important. Get off your ass and go tell your story.

Do not let production value get in the way of your creative expression.

Film Friday: The Key to Becoming a Successful Director

Writing a screenplay, filming shorts, building a reel, exhibiting talent and advertising yourself as a “director” are NOT enough. Film is a collaborative art and it takes a strong core team. The key to becoming a successful film director (or any key-level position) is to surround yourself with talented people who can only see you as a director.

True for any profession – surround yourself with people who believe in your dreams. Family and significant others are a good start, but you need professionals who can support you and your vision. Convince the industry you are best at doing one thing above all else.

I have mentioned this before, but it has to do with portrayal. If people see you as a good assistant, they will only see you as a good assistant. Best camera operator in town? Good luck getting calls for anything else. If your agent values you as a writer, hard chance earning a push toward the big chair. Show everyone you are a good director, and they will only see you as a good director.

Start on your level. It is far easier and more effective to prove it to peers who will recommend you than to a studio executive with your reel or a script. Your network is your net worth. A friend’s “I know this great director” is far more accelerating than “I know this talented guy who is working at an agency.” If your friends don’t title you a director, no one will.

Best to build your team on level, too. You need at bare minimum a producer, director of photography, production designer, sound designer and editor who can vouch for you. Part of your marketability as a director are the talented chaps you have in tow.

If you are not building relationships with collaborators, getting constant practice or stuck working a 60-hour week, I strongly encourage you to quit your mediocre day job and get busy because you are wasting time. Don’t tell people you are a director, be a director. The only person who will believe your lie is you, unless of course your lie comes true.

Share this with peers you believe in and encourage them with your vote of confidence. Success in collaboration is a two-way street.