You may have noticed that suddenly, there seems to be an infinite number of made-for-TV holiday movies – ones with titles like A Bride for Christmas and A Cookie Cutter Christmas and A Midnight Kiss and A Royal Christmas and A Song for Christmas and A Snow-Capped Christmas (and that’s just a sampling of the As) – in which shiny-haired women with closets full of sparkly necklaces and fluffy sweaters, who have cute jobs such as party planner or wedding co-ordinator or cookie baker or candy-cane maker, go home to a snow-globe town where there is often a covered bridge, and find Mr. Right. You may think that these movies are the filmic equivalent of a cranberry-scented-candlelit soak in pumpkin-spiced bubble bath, favoured only by middle-aged women exhausted by their work weeks, who want to put up their feet and watch something that makes them feel like someone is brushing their hair.
But you would be wrong, Scrooge. These movies are big business for Hallmark, Lifetime and recently, Netflix. In Canada, they air on Corus, Rogers and Bell channels, as well as Super Channel and French-language networks. On W Network – which airs the Hallmark Channel’s branded Countdown to Christmas, scores of films across eight tinsel-filled weeks, from Nov. 1 to Jan. 1, 31 new holiday films will premiere this year alone. They’re viewed by women (and some men) in every demographic, from 18 to 55+. During this period last year, W was the No. 1 specialty network in Canada, with the highest audience numbers it’s had in 15 years. Mothers and daughters make dates to watch the movies together. Teenagers binge them at sleepovers. Fans count down the days on social media, and buy branded merch such as socks and sweaters.
“When people ask me what films I’ve made, if I mention a Hallmark title, they go crazy,” says Kim Roberts, a producer at Sepia Films in Vancouver. “Watching them has become a real part of the Christmas experience for a lot of people.”
In an e-mail, Daniel Eves, senior vice-president TV networks for Corus Entertainment, praises their “relatable, feel-good storytelling that is family friendly, positive and aspirational.” They fill the void where big-studio theatrical-release rom-coms used to live. And, he adds, they provide “a brand-safe environment that’s highly desirable for advertisers.”
Moreover, these films are reshaping how networks program television: in month-long thematic blocks. In addition to Holiday, there are also Winterfest and Valentine-themed months, Spring and Wedding Season blocks, Fall and Thanksgiving programming. And because 40 per cent of these telefilms are shot in Canada, including Toronto, Vancouver or Banff, they provide valuable jobs to countless Canadian film crews (and the occasional can-Con-required actor). When Roberts was shooting Memories of Christmas in Langley, B.C., three other holiday movies were shooting nearby.
The requirements for Hallmark films are as strict as a haiku. They shoot in 15 days, with a budget between US$2- and $3-million. Production values are high, and often include visual effects (especially for snow, since most shoot in the summer). They must clock in between 86 and 88 minutes, and every shot has to have some Christmas crammed into it. The networks are hyper-involved in casting: Men must be handsome, but unthreatening. (Check out Andrew Walker, who’s made 12 Hallmark films, and you’ll see what I mean. Adrian Grenier just made one; so did Scott Wolf.) Heroines must be pretty, but warm and wholesome, which is why Lacey Chabert has made 17, and Candace Cameron Bure 18. As for the soundtracks, let’s just thank the Christmas angels that The Nutcracker is in the public domain. And of course, each film must end with a romantic kiss.
Now, I’m not suggesting that My Royal Merry Ski Lodge Holiday Ball (not a real title – yet) is expanding the cinematic art form. If you played a drinking game in which you had to sip mulled wine every time a character ordered hot chocolate with extra marshmallows, or decked a hall, or gave an orphan a present, or said, “Christmas is the time for miracles,” or laughingly threw a snowball, or gazed fondly at someone playing a moody Christmas carol on a piano, you would end up very drunk indeed.
Watch one, and you will wonder how these perky Everygirls can afford $10,000 worth of poinsettias for their windowsills, or why they wear false eyelashes all the time, even when they’re in their adorable flannel pyjamas, and by the way, when did everyone get a backyard fire pit? Watch two, and your eyes will be so dazzled by the holiday-light bokeh effect (background lights blurring into warm circles) that regular life will forevermore look stale and bleak.
But – and I’m serious here – watch three or more, and you will gain some insights into what women fantasize about. Hallmark has made hundreds of these movies now, and they keep close track of what viewers respond to. So it’s fascinating that here in 2019, the ideal husband is a hunky handyman who also runs a local museum (a real character in one movie I watched). Or he’s a stressed-out businessman – subsets here include big-city businessman and ski-lodge-owning businessman – who needs to relearn that “Christmas is about people.” Or he’s a prince in “a small European country you’ve probably never heard of.” There are a surprising number of these princes running around, and you would not believe how often they get snowed in in small towns with cherished annual Christmas festivals and madcap hotel desk clerks.
Mainly, you will learn how worried and unfulfilled many of us feel. A significant percentage of these films’ heroines – be they ex-ballerinas or ex-figure skaters or ex-cellists – have (soon to be ex) fiancés who do not look at them or ask them about their day. A great many of them have dead parents and stay in stale relationships because they’re scared to be alone. So when the handyman FaceTimes his sister who’s a soldier overseas, or the businessman plays Santa at the local orphanage, or the prince acts aloof only because his father was stern and unloving, that’s the crack where the love comes in. That’s what women want, it turns out – and it’s dead simple. Well, that, and a guy who gazes at you adoringly while wiping whipped cream/icing/snowflakes from your cheek/nose/hair.
“These films reinforce our faith that things will get better, that our families will be supportive, that we’ll find someone we connect with,” Roberts sums up. “They’re about our hopes for how our lives will turn out.”
I didn’t realize how many of us need to hear – repeated three times minimum in each film – adages such as, “It isn’t love unless the thought of spending your life with him makes you the happiest you’ve ever been;” or, “You can get what you wish for, but you have to ask;” or, “I guess we all can’t see what we’re blessed with;” or, “It’s okay to be scared but don’t let it stop you from being happy;” or even, “Sometimes the heart can tell us more than any spreadsheet – we just have to learn how to read it.” But apparently, we do. Apparently, it helps. And isn’t helping and being helped the real magic of the season?
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