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Hollywood’s turkey factory: inside the Hallmark Christmas movie machine

The 2023 Hallmark movie A Merry Scottish Christmas
Scott Wolf and Fiona Bell in the 2023 Hallmark movie A Merry Scottish Christmas - Hallmark

If you’ve looked around at the tawdry decorations stapled up by nearly broke city councils, sighed at the pantomime of parliament and worried about Bethlehem being filled with gunfire in late December, you might wish you knew where the spirit of Christmas has gone.

The answer? The Hallmark Channel. The US cable channel – available in the UK on Amazon Prime Video – has spent the last 10 years owning what Americans still charmingly call the Holiday Season, as it stretches from Thanksgiving in late November to the start of the New Year. Hallmark has at least two original Hallmark Christmas movies for every one of those, with more than a few to spare – and that’s gradually making the channel one of the most successful cable channels in America. Indeed, in some cases it’s practically keeping cable networks alive.

At cable’s peak about a decade ago, roughly 90 per cent of US homes were wired up, giving Hallmark nearly 100 million living rooms. Today that’s less than 70 per cent, but Hallmark’s ratings are declining surprisingly slowly, especially at Christmas. As ratings currently stand, Hallmark is the second most-watched cable network in 2023. Christmas looks likely to give it the number one slot after it overtook Fox News on November 30 with the premiere of A Biltmore Christmas.

And this year, thanks to Hallmark agreeing a separate early deal with the Screen Actors Guild, A Biltmore Christmas is joined by an astonishing 41 new movies – including Jolly Good Christmas, Never Been Chris’d, Christmas Island and Catch Me if You Claus.

These – along with a bewildering array of Hallmark classics – form Hallmark’s Countdown to Christmas, an assault of festive cheer starting at the end of October and running relentlessly through to the end of December, consistently rolling out movies which make Richard Curtis movies look like gritty urban thrillers.

Indeed, one of Hallmark’s new movies this year is Christmas in Notting Hill, about football star Graham Savoy, who has always been too busy for love, coming home to Notting Hill for Christmas and changing his mind after meeting the one girl who has no idea who he is. Cue flawless people holding mugs of warm beverages whilst solving minor romantic problems over the course of the holidays.

A typical Hallmark Christmas movie plot sees a cynical city girl going home to Smalltown after a break-up and meeting a goofy Christmas-loving boy with a simple outdoors life. She FaceTimes her sassy best friend whilst avoiding falling in love but, whaddya know? She does fall in love and decides to stay. Or the hero/ine might discover they’re a duke or duchess, they might be stranded by the snow with an initially irritating person/small group or they might be in a Hollyood knock-off where we know the plot but it’s got added Christmas.

Fits the mould: Christmas in July
Fits the mould: Christmas in July

In this latter genre, there’s obviously Christmas in Notting Hill as well as Three Wise Men and a Baby which is, essentially, Three Men and a Baby at Christmas, and Magic in Mistletoe which is, essentially, As Good as It Gets at Christmas. Catch Me if You Claus isn’t strictly speaking in this slot – it’s about Santa’s son taking over from dad and stumbling down news anchor Italia Ritchie’s chimney. They team up to catch the Santa Crook, who has been orchestrating local robberies, so they can save Christmas.

Recently the films have included some genuine movie stars – 2017’s The Christmas Train has Kimberly Williams-Paisley Dermot Mulroney, Danny Glover and Joan Cusack – but most draw from an extended collection of actors in what might be described as the Hallmark Christmas Repertory Company.

“People want to watch their favourites over and over again in different situations,” according to Lisa Hamilton Daly, Hallmark’s vice president of programming in a recent interview. “That that really speaks to the great stable of talent that we’ve built up over the years and how passionately our audience feels about them.”

Low budget hit: A Biltmore Christmas
Low budget hit: A Biltmore Christmas - Hallmark

It also speaks to the low budgets of these movies – often under $2 million, and usually they’re shot in three weeks. Over half of them in any one year are shot in Canada, although increasingly the UK is used as a location – in Hallmark land, the UK is the exotic Europeland destination where Christmas crackers mean Christmas poppers and the heroine falls for the guy who explains this. Essentially, wherever tax credits make shooting cheaper and the locals speak English.

Forbes magazine estimates that the 80 million people who watch at least some of a Hallmark movie generate a third of the channel’s annual ad revenue. That’s $350 million. So, 42 movies at $2 million a pop vs $350 million… It’s a good business model.

It’s the Rep Company that also makes Hallmark movies stand out from the flood of copycats – Hamilton Daly joined Hallmark in 2021 from Netflix where she had developed some of Netflix’s ever-increasing library of Hallmark-lite “content”, most notably Sweet Magnolias and Virgin River.

Hallmark Rep Company favourites include Andrew Walker, who stars in Merry & Bright, A Dream of Christmas, Debbie Macomber’s Dashing Through the Snow, and A Bride for Christmas). Lacey Chabert – who played Gretchen Wieners in Mean Girls – has added sparkle to Matchmaker Santa, A Royal Christmas, Family for Christmas, A Christmas Melody, A Wish for Christmas, The Sweetest Christmas, and Pride, Prejudice and Mistletoe.

But the all-time Hallmark Christmas Champ was Candace Cameron Bure, whose pre-Hallmark career peak was in the 1987 sitcom Full House. She went on to star in four of the 10 most-viewed Christmas movies on the network including 2014’s Christmas Under Wraps, still the channel’s highest rating seasonal premiere, but quit Hallmark in 2022 to join the Great American Family channel.

And this where is the grit in Hallmark’s virgin snow appears. Bure followed former channel head Bill Abbott – the man who invented Countdown to Christmas and helped found GAFC. In an interview she said Hallmark was a “completely different network than when I started”. She wanted to “tell stories that have more meaning and purpose and depth behind them” – including those with stronger faith-based themes, adding “I think that Great American Family will keep traditional marriage at the core.”

She is talking, of course, about homosexuality. In 2019, Hallmark pulled a commercial for a wedding planner website called Zola which showed two brides kissing after pressure from the conservative group One Million Moms. The reaction was swift, Hallmark apologised and reinstated the ad but the snowball started rolling.

Abbott, then still CEO, admitted that the channel had only four holiday movies with a non-white cast, former Hallmark Rep Company actor Hilarie Burton revealed she’d quit after Hallmark refused to include an LGBTQ+ character in her next film and Saturday Night Live ran a Hallmark Dating Show sketch where Scarlett Johansson chose from bachelors including Prince Simon of Caucasia who counted the one black person in town as a friend. “I just don’t know,” Johannsson agonised. “Give up my job and my very gay friend in the city for things that are actually good like Christmas and men?”

Abbott left the company in 2020 and his replacement Wonya Lucas oversaw a hurried introduction of diversity in casting whilst retaining the same basic storylines. Hence Christmas at the Golden Dragon about the family behind a Midwestern Chinese restaurant; Hanukkah on Rye, a romance about two competing deli owners; and All Saints Christmas, a tale about an R&B singer heading home for the holidays as well as a movie with a gay couple – The Christmas House, starring Mean Girls star Jonathan Bennett. By 2022, Bennett was playing the lead in the channel’s first LGBTQ+ Christmas film the Holiday Sitter. “Am I the gay King of Christmas?” he asked in an interview at the time.

Lucas left earlier this year, but her strategy of everything remaining exactly the same, whilst being in a very small way enormously different, is still in place. “The rule has often been Christmas in every frame,” according to Hamilton Daly. “As we’ve started to diversify the stories we’re telling, we have maybe lightened up on those rules somewhat. I am always joking with producers that they really need to put something in those cups that they’re drinking out of, because you can tell there’s nothing in them.

“That’s my personal pet peeve with the movies. I’m like, ‘Put some cocoa in those hot-cocoa cups!’ But people just love it. It puts them in the mood, and it’s fun. And if you can’t have a stroll through a Christmas-tree farm in a Hallmark movie, then why do we even make the movie?”