The easiest thing to get people to watch is a trailer. Whether they’re a friend, a family member, or a total stranger, a trailer is something that everyone understands and is willing to spend a minute or two on. As such, if an audience is your goal, a good trailer is absolutely vital to the eventual success of your full series. But what makes a good trailer, especially for a web series?
In general, the formula is simple- start with something shocking, striking, or intriguing, add in a line or exchange that expresses the tone concisely even if it doesn’t reveal much about plot, layer in a montage of the most interesting individual shots, and end on a cliffhanger with something exciting, scary, or funny. Let’s break it down by these most common components.
1- The Cold Open
Even wasting one minute feels like an eternity in internet time, so your first 5 seconds needs to capture whoever might come across it. Think of this like your trailer’s cold open, which is a narrative technique to start your episode or film in the middle of action before the opening credits, instead of starting on a more chronologically logical place that might not be as exciting. Depending on the type of show you’re making, your trailer’s cold open might be:
A concise statement of purpose like in Sam and Pat Are Depressed
You’ll notice that in the examples above, even if the actual first shot of the trailer is a screen of laurels, or text, or the show’s name, the editors will often have the audio start earlier, and at the very least, the pre-footage slates don’t last very long. If your trailer has over 10 seconds of text without any show audio or cut-aways to clips, you’re going to lose people.
The cold open might only be a few seconds, but the purpose is to give your audience enough curiosity to continue watching. Hook them early and you’re more likely to keep them around.
The other thing striking about each of the above examples is that the opening visual really sets the tone for the series. 37 Problems is a light-hearted comedy so its first shot is the star (and creator) in a bright room, Shooting the Shit is a simple ensemble comedy that starts in motion with its ensemble all accounted for, Knock Knock is a horror series so its first shot is further from its subjects with a much darker color scheme, The Spell Tutor is set in the Harry Potter universe and immediately shows off that yes, they’ve got magic to spare, and Sam and Pat Are Depressed is a show with only two characters so its first shot is a close up two-shot of the those very leads sharing a drink.
You want to entice people, yes, but you also want to establish a sense of place and tone. There’s no point in making a gritty, action-packed trailer for a romantic comedy- you shouldn’t have to lie or embellish to make your show interesting. Just put its best foot forward.
2- The On-Brand Exchange
Best used if your cold open is short or sans speaking, the lion’s share of your trailer should be structured around a single line or simple exchange that you can intercut b-roll on top of. This exchange should either reveal the show’s setting/world (like a zombie apocalypse), the main character’s unique perspective (maybe she’s an assassin), or the central conflict/inciting incident (like fertility panic).
All “on-brand” means is that, similar to your cold open, whatever line or conversation you choose should feel tonally consistent with what audiences can expect from your series. It’s also best if the line or exchange can stand on its own out of context, even if vital plot mysteries haven’t been solved or revealed.
Sometimes in order to bridge the gaps in an exchange, trailers will use intercut text, which can be used if you don’t have a long enough line or single exchange to carry the whole trailer, which was the case in the Sam and Pat Are Depressed trailer I linked above. That show was an episodic comedy where each episode stood on its own, so there wasn’t so much a single on-brand exchange as there were many shorter ones. As a result, we just gave audiences an expectation of the themes we’d have the characters explore over the course of the series while making it clear the show was about mental health and these two characters’ dynamic. That couldn’t have been cleanly accomplished without a bit of textual help, and since we started with a visual cold open, the text didn’t slow down our pacing.
3- The Clip/ B-Roll Montage
Arguably the most important part of any trailer is the quick clip montage that happens in almost all where the filmmakers can pack in a series of their favorite shots and character expressions in just a few seconds. This allows you to expand the scope of your preview from a single exchange to all that your show will have to offer. Some tips on which clips to choose:
Clips with motion
Clips with action
Clips with striking framing
Clips with lots of color and/or unusual visuals
Clips with character close-ups
Clips with something shocking, exciting, or confusing happening
Basically, since context is irrelevant in a montage like this, flex! Show off your most interesting frames and your most impressive camera moves, and give us the feels with character close-ups. Think of this part of your trailer like your web series’ reel- if you had to pick a handful of shots that you’d use as a visual resume, make sure they’re captured here.
4- The Final Beat
Ending a trailer can be tricky, the same way ending an episode or series or film can be. But in a trailer’s case, while closure is important, it also needs to elicit a response in your audience to want more, even if they’ll have to wait a few weeks or months.
For the Brains trailer, we essentially wanted to showcase the show’s own genre contrast- it’s a series about a girl who lives in a horror movie who thinks she lives in a rom-com, so the trailer is structured to start on a dramatic note, about surviving the apocalypse, intercut with shots of zombies and people with serious expressions. Then the music shifts as she reveals that the real problem with the apocalypse is that she has… needs… which transitions into a montage of kissing and interpersonal drama, with the character’s monologue and the trailer ending in a very different place than it began. The ending was the contrast to the trailer’s assumed starting premise.
For Sam and Pat, the story wasn’t that complicated, so we let our trailer score play us out underneath our b-roll montage, ending on the two characters clinking their beers and taking a drink after a series of escalating-ly strange clips. However, when we made our season 2 trailer, this formula had to change because the show itself had started to change, so we ended on one of the characters asking a surprising question- “Do you think we’d still be friends if I wasn’t depressed anymore?” Since the show is called Sam and Pat Are Depressed, that final beat/line hits as a surprise, indicating a change in the status quo that both the characters and the audience will have to wrestle with. What did she mean? What does that statement have to do with the future of these two characters we’ve come to know and love? I guess you’ll have to watch season 2 to find out!
And that’s it- that’s what a good trailer ending should do. It should leave the audience with questions, with something unsettled that can only be resolved by watching the show, either through dialogue or visuals. For comedy trailers, this often comes by including a set up without a punchline, or vice versa, so the point of watching will be to get the complete joke (and many more alongside it).
5- The Button [optional]
Not necessary for every series, but it can often be fun after you’ve resolved your trailer to cut to your show title to quickly cut back to a final completely out-of-context shot or line. It’s usually something dramatic or funny, just go surprise the audience out of their expected credits sequence to offer a final hook. Recon’s trailer has one, as does the Knock Knock trailer, if you need an example. This is totally optional, but can be a fun way to break structure and get a final creative punch in.