The secret industry of Hallmark Christmas movies
How the channel produces so many irresistible holiday movies
Cable is dying but, somehow, the Hallmark channel is thriving. Normally, we despise companies who try to monetize the joys and wonders of Christmas but Hallmark did it and we couldn’t be more thankful. Here’s the inside scoop on their formula for making predictable yet heart-warming movies we can’t help but love.
Media should be evergreen, just like Christmas trees
One of the best bosses I have ever had told me once, “Create content that is evergreen enough to be archived in the Library of Congress.” Evergreen content isn’t just a fancy word people use to replace “relevant” — it’s a term that describes content that will last through seasons, trends, fads, phases, and cultures. It’s a term that Hallmark has completely and utterly misunderstood … Or have they?
Well, maybe not misunderstood — more like redefined.
Hallmark has taken this term for its literal meaning regarding trees that retain their leaves year-round — much like our well-known and much-loved Christmas trees. This new “evergreen” content, by all the usual standards, is supposed to fail since it’s Christmas-centered. So, why doesn’t it? Let’s dig into their secret formula and then take a look at one of their most popular movies.
They defy cable trends
In an era where many people have abandoned cable completely, Hallmark has found a way to create made-for-TV movies that break audience viewership records. Since 2000, their writers and producers have identified what viewers want most out of holiday movies via trial and error. They’ve since become the consistent leader in creating seasonal programming. In a single two month period, 85 million people tuned in to watch their movies.
So, how exactly do they raise the industry standards for holiday programming each year? How do they consistently bring viewers back to cable for cheesy Christmas movies? How do they compete with Netflix and other streaming services? Well, as innovators in the industry, they have some secrets to keep them in business — but we’ll reveal them all to you.
They keep tight timelines
Did you know it took only 18 days to film the entirety of Casablanca? Ron Oliver, one of the directors for Hallmark movies, likes to remind people of this little-known fact whenever people question his 2-3 week limit for movie production.
Hallmark movies are almost always filmed from start to finish in less than three weeks, especially now that they have a formula, a strategy, and a reason to do so. When Business Insider spoke with Ron about the seemingly impossible deadlines in mid-October, he was in post-production for “The Christmas Train.” The movie was set to air in November. And you thought your deadlines were tight!
And even tighter budgets
The company is known for being disciplined and cost-effective in more ways than one. Each movie is completed with a budget of less than $2 million which, although it may seem like a large amount of money, was roughly the catering budget for Transformers. But how do they do it?
Well, for one, each member of the cast is usually made up of relatively unknown people (peep Meghan Markle before she became royalty!). They also produce most movies in another country (keep reading to find out where) where they get tax breaks and other benefits. Lastly, they use fire extinguishers and pillow fluff for snow since they shoot in the middle of the summer.
Advertisers get their money’s worth
Most cable networks are struggling to convince advertisers to use their network for commercials. After all, advertising makes up a large majority of revenue for cable networks, and since more and more people are getting rid of cable TV, the networks are struggling to attract advertisers with their low numbers.
Hallmark, however, doesn’t have to do any convincing whatsoever. In fact, they have advertisers lined up outside their door (not literally, of course) hoping to be featured either in their movie or in their commercial breaks.
Lately, companies such as Folgers and Toyota have been making quite a bit of money by advertising within the movies themselves (think one of the main characters making coffee or driving a Toyota vehicle).
Older viewers know they keep it clean
In an era where privacy is seemingly non-existent, older generations have found themselves desperately seeking any media that doesn’t have something offensive in every other scene. For them, Hallmark is their Godsend, their safe place, their go-to for traditional holiday (or year-round) romances, and the network plans on keeping it that way.
Hallmark movies are known for their immense lack of controversial content like nudity, sex scenes, violence, cussing, alcohol use, and drug use, which is exactly what people expect from them. Essentially, they’re Disney movies made for adults (especially the ones featuring royalty or time travel!), which also adds to the special magic of the holiday season.
Viewers of all ages feel warm and fuzzy
Have you ever been in the mood for a romance? Maybe something like Titanic where you already know you’re going to cry. Or, perhaps something more like Marley and Me that just makes you clutch to your pet for dear life (as they may or may not be struggling to free themselves from your loving grip).
Love, romance, emotional connections, family bonds, and child-like wonder are just a few of the ingredients necessary for a successful Hallmark Christmas movie.
“It’s really about celebrating the holiday, not just making it a backdrop. This is the time of year when people really want to feel good, feel like part of a community and part of the holiday season. When you spend two hours with us and watch an original movie when you’re done, you feel better about yourself and the world,” says Michelle Vicary, Hallmark’s head of programming.
They shoot their movies in Canada
Ever wonder how they find these cute, frozen-in-time towns? Well, they head on over to Canada where they get tax breaks and other benefits. They also get to work with local film crews and workers, which not only supports the economy but also adds a level of care and consideration for the towns they momentarily take over.
While many are shot in the Vancouver area given its perfect wintery setting, movies have also been filmed around Toronto and Montreal. When a movie requires a different setting, say more southern or more international, they head to Georgia, Kentucky, Texas, and the Carolinas, or even across the seas to Romania.
They get the most out of picturesque towns
We get it — Canada has perfect, picturesque towns. But, Hallmark is finding out there’s only so many towns with cute log cabin storefronts and only one main street. So, how do they deal?
Well, by redecorating or transforming towns they already filmed in, of course.
With some extra ‘snow’ covering the roofs and signs and some experimental film perspectives, it’s not hard to make one town look entirely different than what it was before. “We’re not embarrassed to say, ‘let’s make it sound even more holiday oriented,'” Michelle Vicary says. “We are not shy about creating an environment that compliments and enhances that great story.”
They start running in October
“Christmas doesn’t start until after Thanksgiving!”
“No, Christmas starts as soon as it gets chilly outside — right after Halloween!”
It’s an annual, age-old battle: When is it truly appropriate to start decorating for Christmas? For Hallmark, Christmas movie reruns start right in October to get people excited for the new original movies in their 25 days of Christmas campaign.
But, true Hallmark lovers don’t mind. It’s sort of like a pregame to the real stuff, and when it’s over in early January, the dialogue for the next Christmas season has already begun.
“The day after January 2, when we go back to our regular schedule and move into our next season, our viewers are sad that it’s over. They have a dialogue on social media that they can’t wait for it to come again.”
But also do Christmas in July
If you think October is too soon to celebrate Christmas, then Christmas in July must seem sacrilegious. But, fear not! It’s only meant to psych people up and get them stoked for the coming Christmas season. After all, Hallmark can’t have people forgetting about their Christmas movies or their prized 25 Days of Christmas.
Not only are all the holiday favorites playing, but special sneak peeks for the upcoming holiday season are featured throughout this merry marathon. It usually features in early to mid-July where essentially every other show from their regular programming is put on pause for the much anticipated Keepsake Ornament Premiere.
They own their niche
Anyone can repaint the Mona Lisa, but it’s never the same as the original. Such is the same for Hallmark Christmas movies. Networks like Lifetime and ABC Family have tried year after year to mimic Hallmark’s successful movies, but none have had similar successes. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Even in the age of Netflix and other streaming services, Hallmark stands out from the rest. “I think people can only take so much,” says Michelle Vicary. “We purposely look to be an escape. We try not to be issues-oriented in terms of creating polarizing conversations because there are places to get that. We are a place that is a haven from that. We’re just a different conversation.”
They stand out in a different way
Yes, the world of media is all about having different conversations. It’s about being unique, being shocking, standing out as much as possible. But, Hallmark discovered a loophole in this industry — when everyone else is trying to add shock and intrigue, viewers are going to, at some point, seek something predictable and safe.
“I think it’s not only the political landscape but the entertainment landscape to a degree too. There are just very few options that are not shocking, looking to shock, or looking to be over-the-top in terms of violence or salacious for salacious sake. I think people tire of that.”
“It’s tapping into emotion in a positive way and making you feel a little better about relationships and how people interact,” William J. Abbott, Crown Media’s CEO and president explains. “The Hallmark brand is all about people connecting. The secret, I think, to our success is that we focus on that relentlessly.”
They appeal to the independent woman
Who knows women better than women themselves? Since women comprise about 86% of the Hallmark viewership, it’s no wonder that 50% of the scripts written for the movies were written by women. They also make sure they have an even to an almost even count of women directors, cast, and crew.
Why do they prioritize this? Well, they know that a lot of their older movies were guilty of playing into the stereotypes that women are still actively trying to get out of to this day. “You look back at some of the old, old movies, and it’s kind of the stereotypical situation of the woman at home,” he says.
“We work very hard to stay out of that stereotypical dialogue and situational behavior because it’s just not reality, and it’s not authentic. We really try to empower women. We really work hard to ensure that our women are strong — while they don’t need a man, they’d love to fall in love. But at the end of the day, that is not what they need to be successful or happy or fulfilled or have a good career. That is something that is very important to all of us to portray.”
Hallmark cut ties with Lori Loughlin, perhaps to maintain its clean image
Crown Media (which owns the Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries) decided to break ties with actress Lori Loughlin early 2019. Also a former Full House star, Loughlin was in Hallmark productions like Homegrown Christmas and When Calls the Heart. So, she was pretty much a Hallmark Channel mainstay … Until now!
Since Hallmark cut ties with her, she’ll no longer be starring in Garage Sale Mysteries (although produced by a third party) nor the Christmas movie she was slated to be involved with in 2019. Loughlin and other parents were charged with a college cheating conspiracy in which students were admitted to universities posing as athlete recruits.
But keep the knight-in-shining-armor fantasy
With all their focus on the independent woman, you’d think they would forget that we still have those age-old romantic fantasies of being swept off our feet and riding into the sunset. We aren’t saying we necessarily want that in real life, but indulging in our guilty pleasures and shameful fantasies is just what we need sometimes.
Each of the Hallmark Christmas movies features an emotional bond of some kind, whether it’s between a man and a woman, or between family members (although most are, admittedly, romances). The network has been able to find the sweet spot between appealing to single people and appealing to those in relationships. It’s tricky to not create a perfect romance that makes people bitter and jealous and to instead make something that gives people the warm and fuzzies.
They only hire people who really care
Hallmark may not seem as well-funded or important as other networks or industry leaders like Netflix or HBO, but in reality, Hallmark only hires the best of the best. After all, filming and producing a movie in less than 3 weeks for $2 million is next to impossible for almost every other company, so the dedicated, intelligent, and resourceful employees are usually highly sought after by other companies.
“Our movies are so much better because our production value, our stars, our music, our scriptwriting, our development, and our production are so much better than they’ve ever been,” Abbott says. “Success snowballs. The more you do right, the more people notice; the more people notice, the more you invest; the more you invest, the more you pay attention, and the better it gets.”
They’re becoming more diverse
In recent years, Hallmark has been accused of taking the idea of a “white Christmas” a little too far. With a majority white cast and extremely limited representation of any other culture, religion, or race, they realized they needed to act fast. They had begun with the most pressing issue of killing off the stereotypical woman/damsel in distress, but this was only the first step to becoming a diverse and inclusive network.
There has been talk among the top executives of the company to create a Hannukuh-themed movie, to add in more genders and sexual orientations, and to change up some of the plot points. “One of my development execs brought me one this week that they were really excited about,” Vicary says. “I said, ‘Great, let’s meet and talk about it for 2019.'” Abbott said, “As we delve into our content and [look for] a more authentic way, we’ll progress. Everything is on the table.”
Santa’s not the only one checking a list
So, if they’re always worrying about which town to shoot in, how diverse their cast and crew is, and how to target their intended audiences, how do they have time to think about everything that makes their Christmas movies so festive and special?
Well, they have a fairly simple checklist. Every item may not apply to each movie they create, but the majority are non-negotiable no-brainers. For example, at least every movie has one character with a red coat and another (or the same) with a green sweater. It’s also essentially required that there be at least one scene of gift wrapping, baking cookies, or getting a Christmas tree.
No movie can only be about snow
Remember the movie “The Day After Tomorrow” where New York City is hit with a snowmageddon that completely buries the city and all of its residents? That movie is about snow because snow is scary and snow kills people all the time. So, we understand why Hallmark tries not to make their movies about snow as a primary or even a secondary theme.
But they have other motivations, as well. Snow is quite pricey, and with their limited budgets, they can only afford just enough snow to make the movie feel Christmas-y.
Michelle Vicary at Hallmark says, “Every year we get scripts with something like, ‘It’s the first year in the country’s snowiest city that they had no snow.'”
“Nope. Not on Hallmark, it’s not.”
They feature your fave 90’s starlets
“Hey, that’s that girl from that one thing!”
If you’ve seen enough Hallmark movies, you’ve said this at least once. Hallmark has a great way of finding those actresses you all but forgot about, and putting them in their movies to add that extra special sense of childhood nostalgia that we all love (especially around Christmas).
Jessy Schram from Unstoppable, Candace Cameron Bure from Full House, Danica McKellar from The Wonder Years, Catherine Bell from Bruce Almighty, Taylor Cole from The Green Hornet and Dumbbells, Brooke Burns from Shallow Hal, Alexa PenaVega from Spy Kids 2, Bailee Madison from Bridge to Terabithia, and Lauren Holly from Dumb and Dumber are just a few of Hallmark’s most nostalgic actresses.
Their male counterparts are handsome but unknown
While Hallmark focuses on nostalgic actresses, the actors are a different story. Usually, they come out of nowhere, possibly from a modeling agency or someplace where actors are hired more for their looks than for their talent (but, we’ll give credit where credit is due — some of these guys aren’t bad actors).
A few of these actors got picked up for other shows and movies, as well. Sam Page, for example, co-starred in Mad Men, House of Cards, and Switched at Birth. A lot of these guys’ careers as Instagram models kick off after they star in Hallmark movies since millions of women all over the world find them on social media to ogle year round.
It’s usually pretty vanilla
Unfortunately, we had to include this one. Although it’s probably not on the official list, it’s pretty clear in almost every movie that the lead characters will be straight and white. We addressed this earlier as an issue that they’re actively trying to fix, but it’s still a hard fact to ignore.
Although the CEO has addressed this concern, he has also expressed that part of the obstacle is how much of the filming is done in Canada. We aren’t necessarily letting him off the hook for that, but it does appear that more and more diverse cast members are being put in lead roles in the 2018 and 2019 films.
The towns have cute, unrealistic names
The Hallmark scriptwriters have officially lowered their standards of what a ‘realistic’ town name is considered to be. With a small town in Alaska called Garland and another town called Cookie Jar, you’d think they couldn’t get any worse — but, surprise! They definitely can, and they definitely did (and lucky for us, they will definitely continue to do so).
Hollyvale, North Dakota is, in the Hallmark movie Every Christmas Has a Story, the town with the most holiday spirit. In the above photo, there’s a totally-not-cliche banner welcoming all those to Christmastown, but don’t worry — they respect the Christmas after Thanksgiving rule.
Work troubles create vulnerable characters
Let’s stick around in the Hallmark universe for a bit because here modern technology and business-minded people aren’t taken too kindly. These plots often involve the corporate behemoth that is the enemy of a small mom-and-pop shop, someone who gets fired right before Christmas, or holiday stores that are in danger of going out of business
These problems are almost always overcome by using the lead actress or actor to save the day by showing the evil businessmen what Christmas magic looks like, or providing an underestimated skill to a business missing an unknown ‘secret ingredient.’ Regardless, the spirit of Christmas always wins in the end, even when put up against a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.
A slightly supernatural element occurs
It seems like the producers have a hat filled with small pieces of paper that list different possible supernatural elements to pull from at random to determine the plot twist of these movies. In some, there’s a magical elf with wisdom beyond his years or a magic snow globe that acts as a portal to an even more Christmas-y world.
In others, it’s a ghost that either hates Christmas and must be shown how good it can be, or who is training to be a Christmas Angel.
But, our personal favorite is the childhood magic of finding the real Santa Clause and helping him in a hardship in order to save Christmas. Now, that’s what we call a Christmas miracle.
There is emotional trauma to overcome
The worst trauma for a movie character is definitely a dead spouse. A single mother of 2 who works two jobs and may not be able to afford Christmas? A single woman who must learn to love again after her spouse’s sudden death? The formula works for men, too.
In Debbie Macomber’s Mrs. Miracle, James Van Der Beek discovers he may be open to love again when he meets his kids’ teacher. Will he be able to learn how to be vulnerable again? Chances are, he most likely will. But the real kicker of all of these movies is the scene where they show how the spouse died. We aren’t usually criers, but these always make us tear up.
Exhibit A: A Crown for Christmas
We couldn’t give you all the behind-the-scenes secrets to those irresistible Hallmark movies without indulging in one of their most popular movies, A Crown for Christmas. In this synopsis, you’ll see just how perfectly they bring their formula to life.
In this classic, Allie, a maid in an upmarket New York City hotel, is running a bit behind schedule at work. No problem, really, since guests don’t check in until 3 pm anyway — except this time, a special guest is expecting his room to be ready earlier than usual, and Allie has forgotten.
While rushing through the hallway, she bumps into her boss. “I’m sorry, Allie, but you’re fired,” he says.
“Right before Christmas?” She exclaims as tears run down her face. But, little does she know, a man named Fergus had witnessed the whole thing and quickly offers her a temporary gig as a governess to a wealthy European family.
They love a quick bounce back
Allie clearly got lucky (some would say it’s a Christmas miracle, but that one comes later in her story), but she’s about to bite off more than she can chew. She flies to Winshire to begin her new position as a governess and is met with none other than King, the soon-to-be Queen, and the young princess she is now in charge of.
Ever since Theodora’s mother (the Queen) died, she has been a terror to any kind of authority figure thrown her way. Allie, however, proves herself to be different. She is able to befriend the princess and earn her respect (eventually) which catches the eye of the King who was supposed to wed to someone else.
Hallmark doesn’t disappoint
Allie’s eye-catching bond with the princess earns her a royal-worthy dress and an invitation to the Christmas ball, where she is, no doubt, the most beautiful woman in the room. So beautiful, in fact, that the soon-to-be Queen becomes unmistakably jealous.
Now, we know that you know how this story is going to end. Hallmark knows, as well (after all, they put the ending in the title). But, we still won’t give you the ending in hopes that you’ll get to watch this gem this holiday season.
But, then again, if you really want to know how it ends, read on.
SPOILER ALERT: A Crown For Christmas
Ok, fine. Here it is: the perfectly predictable yet oh so satisfying conclusion.
After the Christmas ball, King Max knows he has feelings for Allie. As they are standing and looking into each other’s eyes, you can feel the tension of the will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic that makes viewers wiggle in their seats.
Max looks at Allie, leans closer, and says, “The fact is, you had me at sewing kit.” He kisses her on the lips, and viewers can only be left to assume that Max dumps his girlfriend and marries Allie, who becomes Theodora’s mother (much to her delight). And just like that, Hallmark creates holiday magic.