There’s something predictable and comforting about the holiday season. The familiarity of favorite carols, Nana’s homemade desserts, the neighbor’s holiday lights and the huge Christmas tree that nightly illuminates the town square are customs many look forward to year after year.
No matter the combination of yuletide elements that conjures up the holiday spirit for you, chances are, the Hallmark Channel has an original made-for-TV film that captures that same feeling.
This year, Hallmark Channel’s annual Countdown to Christmas holiday movie event began Oct. 27 and ends on New Year’s Day. In total, the network will air 22 original films during that monthslong period, and its sister channel, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, will air a dozen during its Miracles of Christmas programming, which started Oct. 26 and also ends Jan. 1.
Like Grandma’s family recipe, the marathon of movies has become a holiday tradition for many. For the past nine years, the event has perpetually grown, offering films that vary in plot, but all have something in common.
“We look for each of our stories to celebrate the season and deliver on the essence and spirit of Christmas,” says Michelle Vicary, executive vice president of Crown Media Family Networks. “Our promise is to make viewers feel better.”
Time and Talent
The nightly holiday-themed premieres roll out over two months, but for network executives, it’s a yearlong process, according to Vicary. “Our talent is already asking about what movies they’re going to get in 2019,” she said in June. “We already have some opportunities that have gone into development. We have talent, writers and producers; 2019 is in process for sure.”
The films draw several stars from popular ’80s and ’90s TV series — familiar faces, such as Melissa Joan Hart, Candace Cameron Bure, Danica McKellar and Lacey Chabert, who portrays Darcy Fitzwilliam in Hallmark’s “ Pride, Prejudice and Mistletoe,” airing Nov. 23.
“It takes some imagination to film a Christmas movie in the summer months when the fake snow is melting on set,” says Chabert, who has starred in seven Hallmark holiday movies.
“They love working with us,” says Vicary of the repeat actors. “Why wouldn’t you want to make a No. 1 movie on television?”
During the months the original movies air, Hallmark ranks high in U.S. households, the network reports. “We are No. 1 all fourth quarter,” says Vicary.
“We have 82 million people come and watch the channel at least once during the Countdown to Christmas and Miracles of Christmas events,” she adds, citing viewership data from 2017.
Hallmark Movies & Mysteries ranked No. 9 among households during that time period.
According to the network, 48 million women watched movies on both Hallmark networks during last year’s events.
Although the audience of the often sugary-sweet movies, many that fit into the rom-com category, is comprised of mostly women, men tune in, too. In 2017, 34 million men watched.
Rob Bricken says he first learned of the movie marathons years ago, thanks to ads airing while he watched “ Golden Girls” reruns. However, it wasn’t until last year, that he and his wife, Loree Stark, decided to recap each movie and launch the “A Very Hallmark Christmas” podcast.
During Countdown to Christmas, they watch every premiere and immediately post their commentary on the films.
“There was one time period over Thanksgiving where we watched Hallmark movies 11 days in a row because that’s how many new releases there were,” says Stark, whose favorite 2017 film was “ Christmas in Angel Falls,” starring Rachel Boston as a guardian angel. Bricken most enjoyed “ Christmas Getaway” with Bridget Regan as a travel writer who ends up spending the holiday with a handsome man.
Although Vicary, who has been with the network for nearly 20 years, may not have foreseen viewers podcasting about the movies, she says she always had high expectations for the franchise. “We endeavored to be this big. We come at this with a spirit of hopefulness that we will do as well as we set out to. We learn from any mistakes we make, but largely we understand what our audience wants, and we love to give them what they expect.”
When it comes to meeting viewers’ expectations, Hallmark films follow a formula that is rather cliché for TV. Within moments of the opening scene, which usually involves snow falling in a quaint little town, a woman begrudgingly returning home for the holidays or a heroine lamenting her failed love life — most viewers can practically write the scripts.
For the actor, that means finding enough distinctions between the similar characters and storylines to bring something unique to each film.
“I look for a different nuance in the characters I play and bring a different flavor,” says Chabert, who understands that the predictability is part of the films’ appeal.
“The thing I love most about the movies and the thing I find most fans always point out, is not only is there always a happy ending, but they’re focused around tradition, bringing families together and capturing the holiday spirit in the main character. I love those messages,” says Chabert. “It’s the comfort of knowing what lies
ahead, and it’s going to be heartwarming.”
Chabert’s efforts to break the monotony have paid off, according to Bricken. “I’ve been fascinated by how much variance the movies have despite being forced to follow a pretty simple formula,” he says. “These movies can be genuinely funny or truly awful or completely insane, all while hitting the same story beats.”
Vicary points out that many American film classics are predictable (not only did we know Jack and Rose would fall in love, we knew the Titanic would sink!) and she has no problem being in the company of those favorites.
“The first time you see them on screen, you know they get together,” she says of the couples who fall in love by the end of most of the films. For viewers, it’s the journey they enjoy, Vicary explains. “Our team endeavors to make that interesting and fun, and the ratings surely bear out the fact that they continue to tune in with the knowledge that they’re going to feel good and great people are going to end up together.”
However, Bricken notes that it’s not just the storylines that are predictable, as the characters have more than just Christmas cheer in common: A large majority of the films feature white actors — a lack of diversity for which the network has been criticized.
“You know what you’re getting and that the heterosexual white couple will get together in the end,” Bricken says.
Last year, Hallmark’s “Enchanted Christmas” starred husband-and-wife duo Carlos and Alexa PenaVega, who are of Latino descent. Black actresses Holly Robinson Peete and Sheryl Lee Ralph have co-starred in recent Hallmark holiday movies, and the network is hoping to do more to represent the country’s diversity.
This year, Peete, Tia Mowry-Hardrict, Jerrika Hinton, Christina Milian and Tatyana Ali star in Hallmark holiday movies. The PenaVegas each headline films airing in December.
“We want more diversity in our lead roles and are actively going after some of the leading actors and actresses in the world,” says Vicary. “We still need to do more,” she adds. “We overindex in diversity in executive producers, writers, directors and even the top leadership of Crown Media. ... We are deeply committed to making our programming more diverse.”
Although other networks premiere original holiday movies, Vicary says the Hallmark brand demands a certain standard.
“Our formula is to treat each movie — even though there are a lot of them — as though it’s the No. 1 we’re making for the season. That’s the charge we give to each of our development executives. We don’t have wiggle room to do anything other than bring the highest quality,” she adds. “It’s not something somebody else can replicate.”
Chabert says her family usually spends Christmas in pajamas, enjoying hot cocoa, opening presents and watching movies. “Growing up, we watched “Christmas Vacation” every year. Now, there are a ton of Hallmark movies we can add to the list.”
The annual marathon events have already become a part of Bricken’s holiday traditions, and not just because of the podcast.
“I don’t generally consider myself particularly that into the holidays, although that started to change a bit the more I watched Hallmark,” he says. “We ended up purchasing one of the artificial trees that is featured in almost every Hallmark movie after not having a tree for years and years.”
Just like its greeting cards and keepsake ornaments, Hallmark’s movies have made a place in American pop culture, and like that special family recipe Grandma contributes each year, they’re something viewers look forward to when the holidays roll around.
“We owe our success to the 108-year-old legacy of one of the world’s finest brands,” Vicary says. “We are grateful, but not surprised to be such an integral part of families’ traditions at the holidays.”