NOBODY LIKES VANILLA
by J. Michael Collins

Let’s be honest. When’s the last time you ordered vanilla ice cream?

Okay, maybe with a nice apple pie or on top of a steaming chocolate fondant. That makes sense. Something simple to cut the unctuous pleasure of a great dessert.

Does anyone just order two scoops of vanilla, though? Maybe forensic accountants, process servers, and psychopaths, but most normal humans would find the idea pretty boring. After all, there exists a rainbow of flavors to choose from, ranging from classics like chocolate and strawberry to bold expressions of rebellion that often come in a Ben and Jerry’s pint. Mmmm…..Ben and Jerry’s.

But I digress. I’m not here to talk about ice cream. Though I could. All day long. No, I’m here to discuss demos, and the content therein.

Folks, let me tell you, in a marketplace where any one of about a dozen major league demo producers can help you make a top-tier professional demo, the competition to stand out is fierce. If you are presenting your demo to a major agency, to production companies, on a casting marketplace, or directly to potential buyers, it MUST be an attention-grabber.

Ability is assumed. Let me repeat that: ability is assumed. If you are not a competitive voice actor you will stand out, the wrong way, regardless of the content on your demo. Don’t DO a demo in any genre until you know you have the skills to book work in the part of the business you intend to use the demo in, (And be aware that just because you are good enough to book market rate work on a pay to play or land a small market agent, doesn’t mean you are necessarily ready to drop your demo on the doorstep of a top LA agency.) Among top pros, however, ability is assumed. So when ability is assumed, how do you stand out? Content!

Now, let’s be clear, there are some lines that shouldn’t be crossed. Political or religious material on a demo that is not geared to those genres is a bad idea for the same reason talking about the President over Thanksgiving dinner tends not to work out very well. Vulgarity or overtly sexual content is generally a no-no as well. And don’t be creepy.

That said, the casting side of the industry is changing. A new generation of twenty and thirty-something agents are becoming power players. Creatives at ad agencies and production companies don’t have much grey in their hair these days. The people at companies hiring corporate narration and e-Learning voices might have piercings and tattoos, instead of blazers and Honda Civics. These late gen-Xers, Millennials, and Generation Z buyers grew up on South Park, Robot Chicken, Family Guy, Comedy Central, and have a very different concept of what is edgy or on the line than the previous generation of casting pros did. A curse word dropped into a spot in an amusing way and bleeped out is not going to trigger them. Playful innuendo, done smartly, will make them laugh. Snark and sarcasm are their lives. And you can never go wrong with a farm animal reference.

When you present your demo to a modern buyer, you want to be the one that makes them spit coffee out of their nose. The one whose demo they play for their colleagues because it brightened up their day. The one they remember.

Is there a risk that making bold choices on a demo could backfire and offend a potential buyer? Sure. We can’t predict how everyone will react, and we can’t assume that everyone has a sense of humor. Moreover, a good demo producer will never push you beyond your personal comfort level with regard to edgy content. We WILL push your comfort zones performance-wise, but in the end, you should always have creative control over the content on your demo.

However, in a marketplace where talent is assumed when you hand over your demo to a casting professional, there’s nothing more forgettable than being vanilla.

Want to hear some demos to remember? Check out the samples on jmcdemos.com. Just……don’t drink coffee at the same time, okay?

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J. Michael Collins and JMC Demos are sponsors and supporters of the VO Atlanta Voiceover Conference. His contribution is appreciated and we are happy to share his thoughts and insights with the voiceover community.