Indiana Jones and the Secret of Film Serials [Web Series School]

Indiana Jones and the Secret of Film Serials [Web Series School]

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Raiders of the Lost Ark is the best film of all time. If you’re looking for debate, go someplace else (or troll me below). It’s lean, fun, engaging and a model for all content on any medium. But what inspired Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to create everyone’s favorite adventurer? Film serials.

The saturday matinee shorts played before features from the 1920s to 1950s. Based largely on pulp magazines, film serials were mostly adventure, crime, detective, comic book and science fiction themed. They were told in weekly chapters and mostly appealed to children and geeks. Starting to sound familiar?

I postulate that if many web series creators are inspired by films (and video games), which were initially inspired by film serials, than web series creators should be studying film serials. It’s simple transitive relation (thanks Algebra!). Here are some tips from film serials dug up by Dr. Jones:

A Feature Length Web Series

Film serials were also known as “chapter plays” because they were motion pictures broken up into segments called “chapters”. Each chapter played for a week and ended with a cliffhanger.

The lesson here? Create a feature length web series that lands between 90 and 120 minutes. Be sure to structure the chapters for web series distribution but ensure that it naturally edits into a single feature too.


Digital studios often use this trick to extend the licensing windows in distribution. Modern film serials including Halo: Forward Unto Dawn and FreddieW’s Video Game High School initially released weekly chapters online before releasing a feature length compilation available on DVD, download and Netflix.

“Just The Best Parts”

An important video metric is “watch time”. Film serials can teach us plenty about keeping audiences engaged. Sure they didn’t have infinite entertainment options to compete with like today. But their content was remarkably lean and contained “just the best parts”.

As opposed to those “boring parts” you might ask? Yes, it’s subjective. But the best parts are determined by editing. Web series creators need to boil off even the “good” parts to get a pure batch of “great”. Some tips: keep it focused, reduce your characters and let someone else edit if possible.

End With A Dangerous Cliffhanger

The cliffhanger is a classic narrative devise popularized by film serials. Television milks this extensively from commercial breaks to episodes and seasons. I find web series to have weak cliffhangers. They usually have a random character pops up or close a storyline. The main ingredient to make a cliffhanger work is jeopardy. Just make sure you have continuity on your next episode or you might get trolled:

Will I survive the perils of online video and return Monday? Tune in next week to find out!


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