Inspiration, Pro Tips

The Art of the Sizzle Reel: How to Create Your Best Project Pitch

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You probably already know how tough it is to make it in Hollywood. Sure, you’ve got a great idea, but how do you get it up on the big screen? Or the small screen? Or even a smartphone screen? Creating content can be expensive, and getting a production company on board is a challenge of its own. Even when you finally shove your foot in the door, you’d better have something incredible to impress the executive you’re pitching.

As the founder of Vego Pictures — an LA-based company pioneering the fusion of television, digital production, and live streaming — Ben Ganz knows more than a thing or two about pitches. His experience selling reality shows and running the American Idol digital video team at FOX put him at the forefront of television’s transition into the digital age, and as the former lead editor and producer at GRB Entertainment, he also mastered the art of the “sizzle” — a promotional video that acts as a trailer for episodic television shows. I spoke with Ben to get an insider’s perspective on how to properly pitch an idea in Hollywood.
 

An abridged cut of Ben’s sizzle edit for Orange County Gold Diggers
 

The elements of a sizzle reel

“A sizzle is 3-5 minute video that sells a show,” explains Ben. “It needs to have incredible energy and emotion; it has to present a vivid world and characters, and most of all, it has to tell a story and get the viewer hooked.” Ben is extremely passionate about the topic. “Rhythm and pacing is important, and a sizzle should be exciting, informative, and provocative. Your sizzle acts as a visual complement to your treatment, which is the detailed synopsis of an entire season’s worth of shows in just a few pages.” (Your treatment is a document of varied length, containing your title, logline, synopsis, episode summaries, and characters.) “Your sizzle is the most potent weapon you have in trying to get a show on the air, so make it as great as possible. The visual medium is just so much more impactful than a verbal pitch. You gotta see it to believe it.”
 

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Ben toiling away in an edit bay
 

Play your cards right

“I like to use ‘cards’ or full-screen text to editorialize my stories or emphasize existing audio,” Ben reveals. “These can’t just be plain black-and-white text cards; they must be unique, visually exciting, and relevant to the theme of your show. This is where Pond5 saves me every time! There are thousands of After Effects templates to choose from, where I can always find the perfect fit.”

If you’re looking for a master class in using cards, check out Gaspar Noe’s title sequence for Enter the Void. Yes, it’s a title sequence, and not editorial cards, but it really explores whats possible with the format. Skip to 1:08 for the best part. (Note: contains strobing effects.)
 

 

Music makes and breaks

“Music choice is not important — it’s critical,” says Ben. “My mentor — executive producer James Flint — and I like to call it DJ’ing. Music makes or breaks sizzles. It is all about guiding the emotion and pacing of the reel with the tempo. Here’s a pro tip: never, ever crossfade two music tracks. Instead, when you want to cut from one music track to another, use a sting. This will provide emphasis and assist in turning the corner in your storytelling. When cutting your video, it will often make sense to cut the video to the beat, but not always. Use your judgement. It helps to be a good musician, or at least a good DJ, to make you a good editor.”

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Ben on set at American Idol. He’s also worked in production on X-Factor, So You Think You Can Dance, and Undercover Boss.
 

Know the rules

If there’s one thing you should never include in your sizzle reels, Ben doesn’t have to think about it for too long. “No dissolves!” he says, emphatically. “Personally, I would almost never, ever use a dissolve. It’s a total amateur move. It’s bad storytelling, which points to a failure either in production or post-production. Hard cuts and light leaks are preferable and have more character and class. Or be a real class act and shoot your own transitions in camera.”
 
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However, he adds, the opposite is true for non-music audio tracks. “You absolutely must crossfade your dialogue audio tracks to avoid abrupt edits and pops,” explains Ben. “Smooth audio transitions are desirable, but hard video cuts are the best option.”
 
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Have a hero

A hero shot is a high-production-value shot of your subject, typically looking down the barrel of the lens with a provocative stance and expression. “The hero shot should evoke all of the characteristics of the subject that fit into your story, and be a beautiful shot to boot,” says Ben. “Think: soft lighting, dramatic background, high frame rate, intense facial expression. It’s the shot that often heads up a bio package or character introduction, and it goes a long way in selling your character, and show, to an audience.”
 
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Examples of hero shots from American Idol
 

Develop a signature style

“The only reason I started cutting a sizzle in the first place was because I was trying to sell my show America’s Finest, based on a friend’s lifestyle business in San Diego,” he recalls. “I’d produced tons of footage, and I wanted to make the show a reality. It took me over a year to cut my first sizzle, since I was always rearranging clips and swapping out soundbites (and not working on a deadline). There were easily 20 versions. I finally did option the show for a year, but the company let the option expire without moving into production.” Ben sighs and reflects upon the experience. “Although the show hasn’t been made, it was a great experience and I ended up learning a lot in the process — and, ultimately, I got a job cutting sizzles professionally based on that piece.”
 

 
“Cutting a sizzle is like going to war,” says Ben. “It’s intense and daunting. There’s always a looming meeting, a mountain of footage, the next deadline, the next round of notes, and various ideas and opinions.” He is wide-eyed as he describes the horror of crunch time. “At the end of the day, some things are subjective and other elements are entirely objective I think everyone would craft a slightly different sizzle based on their experience, skill level, personal preference, and what the client wants.”

He goes on to describe his personal hallmark. “I definitely have a unique style. I refuse to do anything cheesy. My edits always move quickly and use a lot of graphic elements to dress up the footage. They’re never boring — though they may give the faint of heart mild palpitations.”
 
For more from Ben, or to contact him about an idea, visit Vego Productions online.