If there’s one thing I’ve learned from working in the television industry, it’s that words on paper cannot convey an accurate sense of pacing, style, tone and excitement when trying to describe and more importantly – sell – a potential new show. The best way to pitch your new show idea to network or studio executives is to use a “sizzle reel”. A sizzle reel is usually used as a part of your pitch presentation, along with your log line, synopsis and budget.
I cannot stress the importance of a well-thought through, well-edited and well produced sizzle reel. A sizzle reel is basically a promo reel that features montage, clip-based, or segment footage (or a combination thereof) that clearly and efficiently outlines the concept for the show. The reel provides a visual shorthand for where the show is set, who the characters are, how it works, what the structure is going to be and the plot if applicable. The emphasis here is on efficient. You’re not going into a lot of detail on the reel. You’re demonstrating a visual shorthand, hitting just the high points of your idea to get across what it’s about across. The other important thing that your sizzle reel is doing is creating a level of energy and excitement (pacing, style, tone etc) that you’re going to use to help persuade the execs in the room that they want to see more of your show. It’s a critical barometer to hit in order to sell your project.
The sizzle reel is your first impression: the open window look into how the show will taste. A clear vision is critical. There are lots of different ways to structure a sizzle reel and we’ll get into that in a moment. A sizzle reel is an important part of a pitch presentation because when a new show idea is pitched using words alone, the show’s creators and the potential buyers may have very different ideas of what the show really is and what it will look like.
There are different types of sizzle reels that can be used to give buyers a clear vision of what your show is all about. Which type you choose, and the length you choose to edit it to has more to do with the show format that you’re pitching, how much footage you have to work with and how much time you have allocated for it in the presentation. Most pitch meetings are short, and I’ve been in the room with producers who mis-timed their presentations leaving little time to screen their reel. Consider all the pieces that you’re going to need in your pitch presentation, and how long each piece will take to present before making a decision about reel length.
A teaser reel is like a fast-paced promo. It’s all about the excitement, adrenaline, style and pacing. These are usually montage-based with or without clips or supers that support the show’s concept, idea or storyline. A tease is just that. You don’t have to explain every detail, you’re hyping it. Teasers are usually set to an aggressive music track and edited with a couple of changes of tempo. You would use a teaser to get people excited about your project when you don’t have full episodes in the can to pull footage from. I like them to be around the 1.5 to 2 minute mark if the editing is amazing and promises to hold an exec’s attention. While this example is selling a DVD season, it demonstrates how a big storyline can be simplified into a couple of sentences.
A classic sizzle reel is edited more along the lines of a movie trailer, using a combination of montage, clips and an overview of the storyline. It broadly establishes character and pacing. You can punctuate with supers providing they help to see the concept of the show. Again, editing is critical. I’ve seen so many pitches go out the window with badly edited sizzle reels. Music is critical. It’s a good idea to use different (2-3) pieces of music to help keep the interest in your edit via changes in pacing and energy. A classic sizzle has to hold exec’s attention while it sells them on your idea. I like to see these time out anywhere from 2 minutes to 7 minutes tops. But at 7 minutes, it had better be pretty slickly produced to warrant the time you’re asking these busy pros to spend watching it. Here’s an example from YouTube. And another example.
Talent reels are usually used with reality shows where the talent is critical to the idea working. It focuses on the talent in the show and should demonstrate the idea, a sense of structure for the concept, how the talent fits into the concept, their interview style, location segments and clips (if applicable). I used to see a lot of talent reels for daytime interview, cooking and competition shows. Usually 2-5 minutes is sufficient.
Finally, a presentation tape is used most often by producers/creators who have already gone ahead and shot footage or even a couple of episodes of their show. It combines the energy and excitement of a classic sizzle reel along with segments from the show that best helps to bring the show’s concept, idea, structure and format to life. This presentation is slick, well-edited and has beautifully art directed supers, GFX and possibly, professional voice over talent to help narrate if applicable. A presentation tape can be anywhere from 10-26 minutes depending on how much show footage you have to work from.
A sizzle reel not only makes sure that the show creator and the buyers are on the same page, it also demonstrates the tone and feel of the show. It’s imperative that your sizzle be as true to the vision as possible, and should accurately depict your show. The reel is a demonstration of how professional, prepared and committed you are to your project. And don’t forget, at the end of the day, this is the entertainment business. Make sure your sizzle is as interesting, riveting and entertaining as possible. This is your big chance … relax and enjoy the process of creation. It’s not every day you have the opportunity to create something that pays off with interest. Good luck and go for it.