On almost every film and video project I work on, actors ask me to get clips of their work for their reels. Actors are wise to constantly update their reels—or at least have the material on hand. However, it seems like there is a lot of misunderstanding on both sides about when and how clips can be provided. So I thought it might help actors and producers to clarify this. Also, I do have a secret way to pretty much ensure you’ll get all the clips you reasonably need.
Building your reel
Because reels are a cornerstone to job hunting in the film business, producers really do owe it to any of the actors or creatives to make clips or a copy of the work available. Many contracts spell out that a performer or other creative can use up to 2-3 minutes of the work on a reel solely for securing work. Even if it isn’t in a contract, I would say that any producer who relies on reels in their hiring decisions has a tacit responsibility to help provide material for future reels.
Sadly, I often hear from actors and crew members that clips are often hard to get. It’s frustrating to need the material and not be able to get it. My basic advice is to ask nicely and be persistent. I would also say, not to get too caught up in the fact that your contract guarantees (or doesn’t) you access to the footage. No one’s going to court over this, so at most that contract is a reminder that the producer did agree to provide it.
You have to wait to get clips
As much as I sympathize with the actors who want footage for their reels, I understand very well why producers hesitate in providing it. The biggest problem is that so many actors want the footage way too early—like as they’re walking off the set.
No experienced producer is going to let any footage from their project out of their hands before it’s ready. That means that the cut is locked, it’s color-corrected, has final music and a full mix. That’s the very earliest that any actor should even want access to their footage—since it won’t be flattering until that point. But frankly that’s still way too early to expect to get it. Producers don’t want footage of their film floating around in the public. They may also have contractual limitations on providing this before a certain time.
The most likely time you’ll get access to your footage is when the VOD or DVD is released. If you get a copy of either from the production then, congrats, you have your footage! Go find an editor. Of course some people ask for footage earlier than this and some films never quite reach the VOD or DVD release stage. What do you do when your film is stuck for a long time in the gray area?
The gray area and the favor zone
Many independent films and series get stuck in the gray area between a film that is complete—and has perhaps played some festivals—but has not gotten into distribution. For some films this can last for months, years or forever. This gray area is the most frustrating for people who want their clips. This is the time to be persistent but nice. (After all, if a movie is in release and they won’t give you a copy, then just go buy one and save yourself some aggravation.) The producer is probably frustrated about the lack of distribution too.
Asking for pre-release footage is wading into the favor zone—and the earlier you want it, the deeper you are. But often the actor did the producer a favor working on the project so it’s fair to ask. Just know where you are coming from–you’re asking for a favor at a time when the producer has a lot on his plate. Be nice and make it easy. If you are asking for clips before a film has been released, then be really specific and reasonable. Ask for a clip from one specific scene (maybe 2-3 if you’re the lead). Give them a thumb drive or a blank DVD-R and ask for whatever the highest format they have easily available. Remember, the easier your request, the faster it’s likely to be fulfilled. The producer doesn’t have unlimited time to be making five clips for each person on the credit crawl.
The secret of getting clips every time
All of that is the standard way to get clips: wait for the DVD to come out or else nicely pester the producer for a key scene or two. But there is a third, secret way that just about always works.
You see, actors aren’t the only ones who want clips—the director of photography, the composer, the production designer—they all want clips too. But you know who has never asked me for footage? An editor. Oh they ask for permission to use the footage, but I never have to actually make it for them. Most experienced editors keep a backup of projects for a year or so just to make sure it’s not lost to the producer’s hard drive crash. So pulling a few clips is no problem.
So my secret advice is this: get to know the film’s editor. This is good advice all around—getting some clips at the end of the project is probably the smallest benefit from befriending the editor. As a director and producer, I’m always surprised at a screening to see the actors meet the editor. Most really have no idea who he is. And yet, the editor has been staring at their faces—and helping to craft their performances—for weeks or months. Like the director, the editor is an invisible scene partner in every moment of the movie. I don’t understand why actors don’t take the editors of their films out to lunch at the start of post-production. You can become a real person to this poor guy who is stuck with your face and voice every day. That can only help you out when they’re working on your scenes.
So if you really want to make sure you get your footage at the earliest possible moment, do this: Take the editor out to lunch (you pay) early in post. Be a charming actor. If you’re not that charming, then find out what the guy drinks and send him a bottle. Stay in touch. Talk to him at the crew screening. (Try not to be too weirded out if he acts like he sees you every day even though it’s been months since lunch. He’s probably has.) Then when it’s reasonable to ask for clips, ask him if he would make one or two for you—as long as it’s okay with the producer. When he says yes, email the producer for permission but say that the editor has already agreed to do it. (So the producer doesn’t have to do anything or ask anyone to—easy!) Bring the editor a six pack.