Imagine a world like the inside of a snow globe, where a dusting of impossibly pristine white snow is always falling, layer after layer, never turning into sad, grey-colored slush. There are wreaths, strings of lights, and stockings literally everywhere you turn. Pretty people with matching impossibly white smiles are falling in love with each other even if they only sort of know each other. At least half of them are royalty, hailing from a European country that almost sounds real. Oh, look: there's a jolly old dude who looks like he's up to something or just being really nosy.
Sound familiar? You're probably watching a deliciously cheesy holiday movie on Netflix, or Hallmark, or Lifetime, or any number of TV networks or streaming platforms. 'Tis the season.
Christmas movies have become so popular that networks like Lifetime and Hallmark, the O.G. for wholesome, family-friendly viewing, now begin their merry marathons way before December 25. Hallmark kicked off its two-month (two-month!) holiday programming on October 26—before nary a trick-or-treater knocked on a door—with Christmas at Pemberley Manor, a riff on Pride and Prejudice.
“When I used to think about the Hallmark Channel, it was like my grandma’s channel,” says Jill Wagner, an actress who has starred in several Hallmark holiday movies. “You can’t say that anymore. I’ve got girlfriends in their twenties who have these sleepovers at each other’s houses and watch Hallmark Christmas movies. And there’s a wide range of viewers, all ages, and not just women, men as well.”
Considering the IRL nightmares that play on repeat every day on our Twitter feeds, cable news chyrons, and newspaper front pages, it’s no surprise that two hours of twinkly lights, feel-good family reunions, and meet-cutes under the mistletoe creates a brand of enchantment that’s almost impossible to resist.
And while we still love binge-watching a ruthless Claire Underwood or bloodthirsty zombies on their unholy quest for world domination, when the weather turns frightful there’s something equally appealing about curling up with a mug of spiked cocoa to see whether former Mean Girls star Lacey Chabert’s Christmas wish will come true. (Spoiler alert: it will. Every. Single. Time.)
Those trends, say network executives, translate to ratings gold (probably frankincense and myrrh, too). This year, Hallmark and its sister channel, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, will debut a whopping 37 original holiday movies. A Hallmark source says they're confident they'll see an increase in viewers this year, up from last year's 82.1 million.
Last year’s five-night Thanksgiving event helped the network enjoy its most successful week of all time—another record it may beat this year—and achieve top standing among its key demographics of women 25-54 and 18-49. More than 36 million viewers have already tuned in for the first three weeks of programming in 2018, gobbling up movies like Christmas Cottage, Snow Bride, and Christmas in Love.
“We’re beating many of the broadcast networks, and those are networks that have many millions more viewers than we do,” said Michelle Vicary, executive vice president of programming and network publicity for Crown Media Family Networks, the parent company of the Hallmark Channel. “It’s really gratifying that people continue to come to us.”
Other networks are also cranking up their holiday offerings. In 2018, Lifetime added 14 original movies to its growing inventory of yuletide programming, more than doubling its total of six in 2017, according to Meghan Hooper, senior vice president of original movies, co-productions and acquisitions for Lifetime Networks.
UPtv is premiering seven original holiday movies this year as part of its 55 days of holiday programming; its 2017 programming pulled in 27.8 million viewers and scored its most successful week ever in the key demographics of women 18-49 and 25-54. “There’s lots of competition now, and what’s so amazing about this audience is that they really seem to love more, more, more,” says Hooper. “It’s amazing to see how many viewers all of us are able to gain every year.”
Netflix wants a piece of the pumpkin pie, too. The streaming service nearly broke the internet last year when it aired its first original holiday movie, A Christmas Prince, set in the fictional town of Aldovia, whose appallingly unethical journalist lead and delightfully implausible plot elements—a Christmas ball/coronation extravaganza, adoption, snowball fights, and an attempted coup, just to name a few—earned it equal parts skewering and adoration on social media.
Which was just fine with screenwriter Karen Schaler. “People were having so much fun picking on the movie,” Schaler said [Editor’s note: guilty]. “They were tearing it apart, and I think it's great, because what I'm trying to do is bring people joy and happiness. I took it all as a compliment and I was just so happy people were watching and talking about it.”
Boosted by that buzzy success, Schaler—a former war correspondent and investigative journalist—then wrote the screenplay for a movie called Christmas Camp, which is getting an international theater and television release this year, and then penned the novel Christmas Camp (and its sequel, Christmas Camp Wedding), picked up by publishing giant HarperCollins. Oh, and Lifetime hired her to write Every Day Is Christmas, starring Toni Braxton and airing this season.
Like Schaler, actors have discovered that this holly, jolly niche of the film business has some unique draws. While budgets may be smaller than, say, feature films—Lifetime’s cost around $1 million (Dhs3.6 million) each, while budgets for Hallmark range between $2-3 million (Dhs10-11 million)and up to $5 million (Dhs18.5 million) per movie for those starring established talent like “Christmas Queens” Chabert, Candace Cameron Bure, or Lori Loughlin—even with a smaller paycheck, actors also can cash in nicely via residuals, since the movies air repeatedly throughout a season and over the years.
The seemingly insatiable audience demand for fluffy Christmas content also means more opportunities. MarVista Entertainment, a leading provider of content to networks, produced 13 movies in 2018—nearly triple its total of five during previous years, according to Deena Stern, MarVista’s head of marketing and communication. “There really is an explosion [of demand] this year,” Stern says.
In addition, playing roles—like, say, a former country starlet who’s forced to record a Christmas album with an ex-teen heartthrob to resurrect their careers—can have a certain appeal. “Gritty raw indie films, I love them so much, and as much as I want to be the crack addict in the alleyway, I also have no problem being in a fun Christmas movie,” says Hannah Barefoot, who will play the aforementioned starlet, Tess Stapleton, in Ion’s Country Christmas Album, airing December 15. “They make people happy, and that’s important, especially right now.”
Tight budgets also demand extremely tight filming schedules—usually 15 days—that present unique challenges for producers and directors beyond incredibly long days. “It’s very fast paced—you have to know what you’re doing, and when you need to go the extra mile and when you can say, ‘OK, we got that in one take, let’s keep moving,’” says Vicary.
And then there’s the pressing issue of snow—more accurately, lack thereof, since many holiday movies are filmed during summer (“Usually it’s about 80º outside, and we’re wearing scarves and gloves, and we have a hat on so we can catch the sweat from coming down,” says Wagner). So those beautiful, delicate, all-important flakes must be made (or faked), which is neither cheap nor convenient.
Noisy snow blowers also jack up the acoustics on set, often requiring automated dialogue replacement (ADR, in industry lingo), which involves actors re-recording dialogue in the studio for better sound quality. (It also helps explain why certain lines can look or sound a bit off in the final product.)
Over the years, however, overall quality has gone way up. While researching this story, I found myself getting reluctantly sucked into Hallmark’s Finding Christmas, a recent classic original about a city slicker and country boy who swap houses over the holiday and—wait for it—fall in love in their new surroundings. (Full disclosure: Lead JT Hodges’ heartwarming acoustic guitar performance of “Joy to the World” almost brought me to tears.)
Next up was 2001’s Twice Upon a Christmas, an insufferable trainwreck I couldn’t bear to watch after the first few minutes of a wrapping-paper fight between Kathy Ireland’s character (Santa’s long-lost daughter, of course) and her kids.
Networks also have strived to address a glaring lack of diversity in their holiday programming. Traditionally, casts have been whiter than all that fake snow, a fact that Hallmark especially has taken some heat for. But the network has started addressing the issue, and in recent seasons, women and men of color, including Braxton, Tatyana Ali, and Holly Robinson-Peete are appearing more often in leading roles for Hallmark and other networks, which execs promise to continue improving. “It has been an industry problem everyone has been working to correct for, and we knew we had work to do, and we have acknowledged that,” Vicary says.
In the meantime, the sugar-spun scripts continue to roll in. Vicary says Hallmark receives hundreds of pitches every season, and the merry moviemaking doesn’t show signs of stopping. In addition to proven plotlines of reuniting families, romance, and saving an adorably named town from some atrocity like its beloved general store closing, true-life tales also offer inspiration, like the one behind UPtv’s My One Christmas Wish.
Starring former Glee star Amber Riley, My One Christmas Wish tells the story of a woman who, without a family of her own, advertised on Craigslist for people to spend Christmas with. “She got tons of responses from people in the same situation that she was in,” says UPtv general manager Amy Winter. “So she ultimately—spoiler alert—spends her Christmas with those people and they sort of form their own family. We found that story remarkable.”
The stories are remarkable, but they also add up to a super profitable business that's perfectly designed for the way we watch movies now: binge-watching under blankets at home. There's no sign of networks slowing down, and as they become more and more ubiquitous, there's less and less shame in watching them. Especially when you know you're watching along with millions of others on social media.
The cost of making House of Cards and Jessica Jones is miles higher than the price of a holiday flick. They're cheap to make, the actors love doing them, and they're formulaic for a reason: the audience shows up. Money is made. Christmas cheer is spread.
And in the (always predictable) end, that’s what Christmas is all about—at least, in the made-for-TV version.
H/T Cosmo US