How To Make a Great Reality Show Sizzle Reel

How to produce a great sizzle reel

The term "sizzle reel" has come to mean a short video used to sell something… anything.  For years the term, “sizzle reel” was an insider term that referred to a short video used to sell a show being pitched to a network.  In more recent times it has come to mean just about any kind of promotional video outside of a 30/60 second TV commercial or a movie trailer. 

For the purpose of this article, however, I will focus on the more narrow definition of a video piece used for the purpose of selling a show to a network.  More than a few of my clients come to me wanting to do unscripted (“reality”) docu-comedies or docu-dramas, so I will focus on these.  This piece will NOT cover how to peddle your sizzle reel.  That’s a big topic, and I’ll discuss this on another day.  Nor, will I delve right now into what I think are the ingredients to making a great sizzle video for promoting a product. I’ll address that in yet another article very soon.   

The 4 ingredients that make for a great sizzle reel

1)   Characters, Characters and Characters

2)   A view into a Unique World

3)   A repeatable structure/arc in the show

4)   Make it Short and Exciting

The most important thing you need to make a great reality show sizzle reel:

Characters, Characters and Characters

Really, the list could be just this. Give me a great bunch of characters and I’ll give you a great sizzle reel! In many ways it doesn’t matter whether you’re show takes place on the bayou or New York City’s Bowery or the HSS Bounty! What matters is that you’ve got some unabashed and idiosyncratic characters.  Great characters are characters, who do not hold back.  They speak their mind.  They have opinions about EVERYTHING!

  •       Donald Trump
  •       Honey Boo Boo
  •       Snooki
  •       Ozzy Osbourne
  •       Simon Cowell

These are ALL characters who do not give two-hoots what anyone else thinks. They say things we may be thinking but would never say in public.  That is what makes them interesting and compelling. We many agree with what they say or we may not but this isn’t important.  What is important is that they believe (or appear to believe) 100% of what they are saying.  They have no shame and they seem to have no conscience.  It’s like watching pure id on display.   If you can find someone like this, you are half way there.

Notice I am referring to the people in our reality show as “characters”.  Can they be real people and characters at the same time? Yes.  Do you think Louis CK, or Larry David or Jerry Seinfeld are really the characters they play on their shows just because they use the same name? Hollywood does this all the time.  Actors play a character something like or a little like maybe nothing like their real life self And you need to get your stars to approach their performance in an unabashed and free-spirited way. 

Treat your subjects as professional actors in your Sizzle Reel

When I am directing a sizzle reel, I will explain to my cast that I am going to treat them like actors in an improvisational space (I am Meisner-trained as an actor). I encourage my talent to look upon themselves as separate from their off-camera self.  I want them to be as free as possible when the camera is rolling. I want them to emphasize a piece of themselves. Some naturally go to this space and I don't have to say a word to them.  Others, I have to assist with some coaxing. I will tell them that things may be said to them or about them, and some things may sting or hurt but at the end of the day, everyone needs to accept that this is a performance and there is no harm done. What happens to them on camera will have little or nothing to do with the reality off camera. I encourage them to say things that they may not normally say. Making a sizzle reel is a privilege and I tell them to have fun with it. I call it pretend “reality”.

Really, it's not much different from directing professional actors!

One of my favorite acting-teachers espoused. “Act before you think!”. The best actors ALWAYS do this. That is exactly what you want in your sizzle reel.  You need characters that speak spontaneously, without filter, without hesitation.  Measured, contemplative people may make great citizens, friends, spouses and parents but they make poor reality show characters.  In the reality TV world, nice guys finish last.  The people with ADD and Turrets Syndrome are the stars!

Sizzle Reels Need Characters with Strong Opinions

A psychic who doesn’t want to wear any underwear cause she thinks it gets in the way of her readings.  Now THAT’S a character.  I developed a sizzle reel with a character like this.  And people’s reactions were strong, let me tell you.  You NEED characters in your sizzle reel with strong opinions. You need characters who are willing to say what’s on their mind.   

I’m not saying there shouldn’t be ANY ONE in your cast who isn’t measured. One or two is fine to play straight man to the others. The Marx Brothers may have had the ratio perfect – three zanies (Groucho, Chico and Harpo) to one straight man (Margaret Dumont). 

Zany IS the essence of comic characters, in my opinion.

When someone watches your sizzle reel, you want them to either love or hate your characters.  

No in-betweens. 

Next week:

The next most important thing you need in a great reality show sizzle reel: A view into a Unique World