Directors Reels and Student Books

This is a room in my agency full of directors reels. Each one of those DVDs on the shelves feature anywhere from one to six different directors. And each director may be showcasing three to eight spots. And there are a few more walls full of DVDs you don’t see in this picture.

This isn’t too different from a creative director or agency recruiter sifting through the sea of portfolios they receive each week. So here are some of the things we can learn from a room full of directors reels:
  1. Most directors (and usually the best ones) are represented by a production company. Just like most students tend to come out of portfolio schools. I can tell you which production companies tend to rep the best directors. And I can tell you which portfolio schools tend to produce the best graduates. Nothing’s guaranteed; I’ve worked with bad directors at some of the best production companies, and I’ve seen poor student work come out of the top schools. But generally, talent produces talent.
  2. I can tell you which directors I want to work with without even looking at their current reels because their reputation precedes them. Building a body of work like that might be a little difficult for you as a student. But it’s something to shoot for. I keep about 10 directors in my head, which is better than being one of a thousand on these shelves. Entering student award shows and trying to get into CMYK is a good way of jumping off those shelves.
  3. There are other directors who are less famous (either because they’re new, or simply haven’t been discovered yet), that I really want to work with. I get to know about these directors when their reps come to the agency and offer to screen their reels for anyone willing to watch. Not every screening I attend is amazing. But I do keep a list of the names that stand out to me. That’s not too different from a student who invests time and money traveling to different cities for interviews, instead of waiting for an agency to call them. I want to work with the people I know best. And if I don’t know you, your chances are that much slimmer.
  4. I don’t always have work for directors I like. Maybe they’re not right for my current project. Or we’ve already awarded the job to someone else. Or we need someone with a little more experience. But I still keep my list of directors I want to work with one way or another. It’s the same with students. The agency you want to work for may not have an opening for someone in your position. But that doesn’t mean they won’t hire you the first chance they get. So be sure to stay in touch.
  5. Imagine a director who calls me once every couple of weeks to see if I have any jobs for him. That would get annoying. Unless that director were calling me to share his latest spot that was truly worth sharing. Then I’d think they were hard-working, dedicated, talented and prolific. Students who send me new work are always more interesting than students who want to “remind” me of the same book they showed me a couple months ago.
  6. Imagine a rep who comes in to screen a directors reel, and decides that the best way to help that DVD stand out in this sea of reels is to put it in a silly case with green feathers sticking out of it and macramé all over the casing. Would it stand out? Sure. Would it make me want to hire that director? Nope. Because I only want to see the work. If it’s bad, it will make the dog-and-pony packaging that much worse. If it’s good, I’ll wonder why they thought they needed anything else cluttering it up. Students, beware of conceptual portfolio bindings and resumes. Let your work speak for you.

7 thoughts on “Directors Reels and Student Books

  1. Lol… “everything written here may be wrong”.

    As a young (undergrad) filmmaker currently putting together a director's reel based on various short films/commercials I've created, I'm wondering what's the best template.
    In your experience, are the best director's reel those that highlight a director's vision through edited visual segments, those that portray entire scenes at a time, or something else? Would definitely value your input on this.

    Thanks!

    -Craig

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  2. Hey Craig-

    Because one commercial can be very different from the next, what I look for in a reel really varies depending on the concept. It might be visual story-telling or a certain type of acting, in which case showing full scenes would be important. In other cases, I'm just looking for cool film. For the project I'm currently shooting, we were looking for directors who could create a unique, stylized environment. You can't be everything to everyone, so I'd suggest you build a reel that showcases your style and includes the kind of work you like to produce. Most directors are hired for their specific voice or look. It isn't useful to be kind of okay at a lot of things. You want to be great at one or two specific things.

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  3. I agree with Jim. Sometimes I'm looking for a director who can shoot gorgeous film and has a great eye for lighting. Other times I want someone who can handle dialogue. Noam Murro's reel is very different from Stacy Wall's. They're both amazing. Just suited for different jobs.

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  4. Thanks for the quick answers guys. I suppose it's all about playing to your strengths.

    Another question: if you chance upon a completely unknown director who has submitted both a completed short film AND a director's reel, which one would you watch first, and why?
    The short film would be 6-8 minutes long, and been screened at several international film festivals. The director's reel would be more up-to-date, but contain key scenes from the short film.

    Thanks for your time.

    -Craig

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  5. Personally, I would watch the director's reel first, because when I'm looking for a director, I'll see 10-20 different reels, and production timelines usually dictate that I make a decision as soon as I can. So as uncaring as it may sound, I don't have time to watch a short film on the job when I've got a stack of other directors to go through. If I really like your work and you make the short list of people the team would like to talk to, we'd probably watch the short film then.

    Short films are great because they show passion and craft. But they're not the best litmus test for settling on a commercial director. You wouldn't choose someone to write a screenplay based on his ability to write poetry.

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