Hallmark Christmas movies have a reputation for being cheesy, and the network wouldn’t have it any other way. “I had to rethink the definition of that word,” said Crown Media’s executive vice president of programming Michelle Vicary. “I don’t think it’s a negative; it’s the positivity and the fun. We’re not shy about it and we embrace it … because people want more of it.
These movies all follow a familiar formula: a G-rated world where the stars are familiar faces from soaps and ’90s sitcoms, everyone is nice (villains are just misunderstood), and every rom-com trope imaginable is filtered through over-the-top yuletide cheer. Christmas is love. That means plenty of eggnog recipes, snowy carriage rides, caroling, tree-trimming, fake snowball fights, cookie-baking, ugly sweaters, secret Santas, gingerbread houses, parades, and reindeer-spotting before two lovelorn souls finally unite for one chaste kiss at the end of the movie.
“When our viewers say, ‘I have two hours and … I’m going to choose Hallmark,’ our promise to them is that they’ll feel a little bit better about themselves, their community, life or the season [while watching],” Vicary said. “We’re okay with that. If we do our job right, that’s how people are supposed to feel.”
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While Hallmark is proud of the unabashed sentimentality in its rom-com storytelling, it has improved the production values that had previously bolstered its cheesy rep. Certainly, the movies today look slicker and don’t rely on reusing the same sets (RIP gazebo!). And although many movies are still filmed during the Canadian summer, Hallmark wouldn’t dare to skimp on snow, despite reports to the contrary.
“I don’t know why too much snow would be a bad thing. I think I’ve been misquoted,” said Vicary of an earlier Country Living story that claimed overly snowy stories were avoided to cut down on the costs of faking it. “We’re not looking for an avalanche, but it’s not a problem for us.”
While the Hallmark-ization of “Force Majeure” won’t come anytime soon, the fake snow technology has improved. Also, with production of Christmas movies now taking place year-round, that means some are shot when genuine snow is outside.
These improvements testify to nearly a decade of Hallmark holiday programming. In 2016, 21 original Christmas movies aired, followed by 33 in 2017. This year, Hallmark brought 38 merry movies to the masses, bringing the total to 174 original holiday movies since the tradition began in 2010.
However, this festive film factory has faced criticism for a certain predictability and sameness. That’s because the details of each movie — such as the protagonist’s career as a teacher or baker or investment banker — usually don’t matter. Those are just the trappings for the same story: The magic of Christmas helps unlock two hearts.
Vicary said, “It’s an 108-year-old, iconic American brand and then you have a 70-year-old Hallmark Hall of Fame legacy of moviemaking… So all of that is getting that script to meet that standard, in addition to all the other brand propositions that the Hallmark brand dictates for: emotional connection and relationships, community, family, traditions, and the seasonal excitement that everybody goes through when fall hits and we know that the holidays are coming.”
Hallmark keeps its brand in check by being selective when it comes to fielding stories from the general public: “We take solicitations from people who have representation. That is one of the things that we do have to adhere to.” However, in-house pitches can be far looser, ranging from simple loglines or anecdotes to ideas based on a true story or an adaptation of a bestselling novel.
It’s when Hallmark goes outside of its usual frothy formula — big city career gal finds love in her hometown or woman with eggnog in her veins charms workaholic guy — that yields some of its biggest successes. This year’s “Once Upon a Christmas Miracle” is based on the real-life story of a woman who faces death unless she gets a partial liver transplant from a live donor. Not only does she find a match for her liver/blood type, but also her heart – all in the same guy. This “strange but true” tale starring Aimee Teagarden (“Friday Night Lights”) became Hallmark Movies & Mysteries’ most-watched and highest-rated original movie premiere in network history among households and women 25-54 and 18-34.
With stories in hand, then it’s a matter of casting the right star from Hallmark’s stable. Although there’s no specific formula, sometimes the actors make their preferences known. “Fuller House” star Candace Cameron Bure is the jewel in Hallmark’s crown. Not only does she have nine “Aurora Teagarden Mysteries” and seven Christmas movies under her belt, but she’s also recently added executive producer to her titles. This year, Bure brought “A Shoe Addict’s Christmas” to the network, based on a book she had enjoyed that has a fun “A Christmas Carol”-inspired device but also themes of family and faith, which are important to the actress.
Vicary also notes that sometimes Hallmark tries to match former “Wonder Years” star Danica McKellar, who published a scientific paper and four books about math targeted at young girls, with stories about teaching. “We have had a couple of movies where she has woven that into part of her storyline when she is interacting with young girls or with kids,” she said. Similarly, it’s a no-brainer to tap Hallmark newbie and country star Kellie Pickler for “Christmas in Graceland” or LeeAnn Rimes for “It’s Christmas, Eve,” a movie about the importance of the arts in schools.
As Hallmark evolves in front of and behind the cameras, it’s still owning the Christmas rom-com storytelling space. While Lifetime provides some similar content and even shares the same actors, the audience is still flocking to Hallmark first, as evidenced by the ratings on Thanksgiving when Hallmark’s ice-skating fairy tale “Christmas at the Palace” far out-performed Lifetime’s “One Tree Hill” alum-filled movie “The Christmas Contract.” Also, even though Netflix is enjoying success with “The Christmas Chronicles,” the “Christmas Prince” sequel was a dud.
Hallmark’s mega-branding is the key difference, and the “Saturday Night Live” parody of its Christmas slate is the ultimate evidence of the pop culture saturation.
“It was a great compliment,” said Vicary. “I think there is a certain reverence for what we do and a sweetness to it, in addition to it being hilarious. We’re waiting to see what they’re going to do this year.”
Hallmark has plenty of offerings to enhance its Christmas cheese platter. It launched its Hallmark Movies Now streaming service, a Sirius radio station hosted by its holiday movie talent, and a checklist app, where viewers can check off the Christmas movies watched and see how many of the 38 are left under the tree. It also has a growing e-publishing and print arm that provides digital and physical books.
This isn’t a case of overkill. The demand really is that high for Hallmark Christmas-adjacent items and activities. In fact, fans have gone one better and started creating their own holiday wear, such as socks, sweatshirts, and t-shirts that declare their love for consuming Hallmark Christmas movies.
“People are just looking for more ways to interact with Hallmark,” said Vicary. “We liken it to a snowball; the more it rolls, the bigger it gets. That’s how we have in an even bigger way this year become part of the public consciousness. We have the Hallmark effect on people.”
With Christmas well in hand, Hallmark has already begun its goal of total seasonal domination. The brand produces original movies and shows throughout the year tied to occasions and holidays that include a Countdown to Valentine’s Day and even Keepsake Christmas, aka Christmas in July (just try to pry the eggnog from their hands!). In 2018, a total of 93 originals were produced, of which only 38 were for Christmas. For 2019, the goal is 103.
“We’re programming and celebrating all year long with people for the moments in their lives that they’re already experiencing,” said Vicary. “If we’re doing our job right, we’re enhancing that experience.”
At this rate, there will soon be 365 reasons to say “cheese” with Hallmark. But at least there will be an app for that.