Hallmark: A Christmas Miracle

12.10.21

It’s Hallmark Season, where low budget is a mission statement and “not enough Christmas” is an insult. This year, Hallmark’s highly successful “Countdown to Christmas,” a lineup of 41 newly released Christmas-themed movies, will celebrate its 13th anniversary and draw more than 85 million viewers, most of them from the coveted 25–54-year-old female viewership category.

“Every city needs a mahogany paneled bar named MFHC (Men in Flight from Hallmark),” says one reluctant viewer. “We can all congregate there while our wives binge on these movies.” The Hallmark Channel, once a lowly offshoot of the famed greeting card company, has become a pop culture phenomenon, spawning apps, books, podcasts, spoofs, pajamas, wine totes, and Sherpa blankets. “It’s become something even bigger than a programming phenomenon,” said Michelle Vicary, the network’s executive VP of programming and publicity. “It’s become a lifestyle. It’s become, ‘How do I live like I’m in a Hallmark Christmas movie?’”

Bigger than the Food Network, Bravo, MTV, and CNN on election night, Hallmark fans have become the “silent majority” of TV viewership, defying cable trends in an age of cord cutting and declining viewer interest. Deeply old-school, the movies provide genre-starved fans with an intense feeling of nostalgia and comfort amidst today’s tumultuous media climate. Devotees admit that they are easy to watch and no stress. “I think they’re better than meditation apps,” says Virginia Heffernan. “I feel more relaxed, more equanimity, more hope, and also a kind of catharsis, with the tears.”

This week, as we count down fifteen days to Christmas, we examine all things Hallmark Christmas Movie (HCM): how the films are produced on a micro-schedule and micro-budget, how standardization has birthed enviable economies of scale, and why Christmas programming has become the one cultural touchstone still capable of uniting us all.

The Economic Strategy of Hallmark Christmas Movies (HCMs)

HCMs are relentlessly lampooned for their cookie-cutter plotlines and mindless content. Some believe that HCMs are more akin to ambient noise than artistic productions. Two experienced HCM writers admit that creating the script is “just a question of plugging your characters into various adorable Christmas scenarios and watching the sparks fly.” (Each draft takes a mere week and a half to complete.)

Yet some argue that HCMs’ unquestionable success depends upon their formulaic sensibility: by using many of the same sets, crew, and cast members (Cameron Candace Bure, the indisputable Queen of Christmas, has appeared in 26 HCMs since 2008), the Hallmark Channel gains remarkable economies of scale, allowing it to churn out over 200 made-for-TV Christmas movies in the last two decades.

Film historian Walter Metz compares Hallmark’s strategy to that of Classical Hollywood Cinema, which routinely relied on production standardization to maximize profit and minimize cost. “Despite the endlessly repeated clichés, there is a great deal of plot modulation [and] innovations within sub-genres that result in not only watchable, but highly enjoyable bursts of creativity,” writes Metz.

Hallmark movies operate on micro-budgets — $1 to $2 million USD — and are heavily subsidized by the Canadian government (up to 30% of the budget), which explains why so many of the films take place in Vancouver. Many of the same Canadian actors are routinely hired (to maximize those tax credits) and will appear in as many as six movies a year. While the leading actor only takes home an average of $900 dollars a day, Hallmark is widely praised for its work-life balance and non-exploitative business practices.

A “Deck the Hallmark” Bingo Card

David Roth, self-proclaimed Hallmark expert and host of the fan-favorite Hallmark podcast, It’s Christmastown!, insists that starring in an HCM is an enviable career. “I mean, the pay isn’t great or whatever, but most of these people aren’t turning down a role in The Irishman so they can go to Scarborough, Ontario and share a chaste kiss with someone at the end of the movie.” There’s the added bonus of nominal time commitment (two weeks of filming with no reshoots), minimal pressure, and a national audience willing to follow you on social media.

Each of the nine acts must hit on a specific plot point — the Meet Cute, the Almost Kiss, the Minor Conflict, etc. — found in every HCM, making the genre unusually conducive to drinking games and Bingo. Producers analyze the script for any potential cost-cutting areas, weeding out extra characters and set pieces. “We’ll go through and cut children and animals wherever possible: they’re too expensive,” said one anonymous producer. Snow, an unusually expensive commodity during Canadian summer, only falls once per movie. “Usually, they just use a soft-focus lens so you don’t notice it’s just white blankets on the grass,” admitted the producer.

Given the myriad number of restrictions imposed upon them, some consider it an act of God that Hallmark movies continue to enthrall audiences. Roth compares it to a poet mastering formal rhymed verse before bending the form. “There’s a Robert Frost aspect to it,” said Roth. “He once said, ‘I would sooner write poems without a meter than play tennis without a net.’ When you appreciate that all of these things have to unfold along the same formulaic lines, you really notice the grace notes and where they actually get it right.”

Hallmark: The Last Political Refuge

Where is Hallmark getting it right? Surprisingly, in many places. Despite its early origins as a faith and values channel, the Hallmark Channel is meticulously apolitical. “The only thing we do promote is pet adoption,” said Bill Abbot, former C.E.O. of Crown Media, Hallmark’s entertainment company. “We make no apologies about that.” Somehow, on a channel devoted to all things Christmas, you’d be hard pressed to find any mention of God, prayer, and/or church.

This is a deliberate branding choice. In 2019, Abbott described Hallmark as being “your place to go to get away from politics, to get away from everything in your life that is problematic and negative, and to feel like there are people out there who are good human beings that could make you feel happy to be part of the human race.”

Indeed, Hallmark hit it big in 2016, immediately following Trump’s election, a coincidence it attributes to the constant barrage of polarized media outlets. “I think people can only take so much,” said 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 place that is a haven from that. We’re just a different conversation.”

Fans agree with them. Why tune into the toxicity of CNN or Fox News (both less popular than Hallmark), when you can tune into a Christmas snow globe? As Monica Hesse writes in The Washington Post, “The news stinks, current events stink — turning on the television, in general, stinks. Another beloved icon revealed to be a sexual predator? Nope — let’s watch Hallmark. Another Korean missile, now deemed capable of hitting the United States? Nope — Hallmark. The president is retweeting fake video clips of — NOPE, LA LA LA LA. HALLMARK, HALLMARK, HALLMARK.”

Unlike its competitors, Hallmark makes no salacious claims to violence, gore, and/or adult content. Instead, the Hallmark Channel is stocked chock-full of family-friendly holiday activities: tree shopping, cookie baking, tree decorating, hot cocoa contests, snowball fights, assembling gingerbread houses, caroling, etc. “Apart from enjoying an occasional glass of wine, the lead characters in Hallmark movies rarely participate in any activity that the average eight-year-old couldn’t handle,” writes one commentator.

Hallmark characters are refreshingly simple and always get a happy ending, leading fans to routinely express envy for their lives. “Dear God, I want the problems of the women in those Hallmark Channel movies,” @SurviinAmerica prays. “They work in coffee shops and live in penthouses and their only stress in life is the Christmas festival. Thanks, Amen.” They are also pathologically nice to each other: the words “stupid” and “crazy” are not allowed on the Channel. “Everything goes through a mildness filter,” said one writer. “It’s like everything gets sanded, filed down so the sharp edges come off.”

Hallmark’s Fight Against Capitalism

Ironically, considering its assembly-line production model, the Hallmark Channel’s underlying themes are consistently anti-capitalist. One of Hallmark’s favorite tropes is that of the single, Christmas-hating career woman who finds momentary respite from the stressors of city life by returning to her quaint hometown in the middle-of-nowhere Vermont. There, she inevitably finds a struggling mom-and-pop business — maybe a failing candy cane factory or a struggling Poinsettia greenhouse — that inspires her to quit her job and marry the recently widowed blue-collar hunk next door.

“The big city is always a place of evil, while the small towns in rural America are the only locations where the true meaning of Christmas can be discovered,” writes Metz. “Given the country’s contemporary political divide, the films might as well equate Republicans with Santa Claus, ever so much healthier than the holiday Democratic Party-poopers.”

This trope is so ubiquitous that Keaton Patti, a writer who has written for The New Yorker and Comedy Central, was able to produce much of the same material from a bot. After forcing the bot to watch over 1,000 hours of Hallmark Christmas movies and then write a script, its initial pages featured a “Hallmark hot” businessman who “wears clothes that cost money.” “I am from Huge City,” he introduces himself. “I bought your land and am turning it into an oil resort.”

The movies are deliberately anti-materialistic, rarely focusing on gifts or lavish displays of conspicuous consumption. Instead, free activities, quality time, and acts of generosity are valorized, often featuring as a plot point to reform the Christmas-hating capitalist. “That’s how people turn good,” says Roth. “These hairy big-city people wind up in a small town and someone gives them the best cocoa they’ve ever had. And then they’re like, ‘It’s on the house,’ and they’re like, ‘Whattt?!’ And that awakens something in them, and then they’re changed.”

Offshoots of the Hallmark Effect

Hallmark’s success with Made-For-TV programming inspired a host of competitors to emulate it. Streaming services such as Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix rebranded the made-for-TV model as “original” movies, creating a new market in their own right. And Netflix, at least, has dared to challenge Hallmark’s hold on Christmas, releasing such hits as A Christmas Prince (2017) and Happiest Season (2020).

Market saturation, it appears, has not yet been met, particularly when it comes to slightly edgier storylines or underrepresented characters (Hallmark has been continuously criticized for its lack of diversity and for “Christmas-splaining” to non-Christian audiences). “Netflix did Let It Snow this year,” said one producer. “It’s interracial, LGBTQ, beautifully shot… and a prime example of a Hallmark-style movie that would never make it onto Hallmark.”

As for its own uncontentious, wholesome, holiday-ready fare, the Hallmark fantasy factory shows no signs of abating. “No matter what the state of the economy, no matter what the state of chaos or stability, there is an extraordinary appetite for simple, cheesy, unsophisticated, easy-to-watch programming,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “And all the better if it’s wrapped up in the bunting and ribbons of Christmas.”

About Colbeck: Colbeck is a strategic lender that partners with companies during periods of transition, providing creative capital solutions to meet their evolving needs. You can reach the team at inquiries@colbeck.com.

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