For a growing group of writers, producers and stars, the escalating war among Hallmark, Lifetime and now Netflix means plenty of good (and lucrative) tidings — if you can master the formula and stomach all the yuletide cheer: "There’s a whole list of boxes you have to check off."
It's a scene straight out of one of those TV Christmas movies: Tippi and Neal Dobrofsky met 30 years ago standing in line for frozen yogurt — Tippi was in a loveless marriage, Neal was on a bad date — and fell instantly in love. They've been writing Christmas movies together ever since, more than 30 of them.
You may be familiar with their work and not even know it: Holiday in the Wild on Netflix, the one where Rob Lowe and Kristin Davis find love on the African savanna? That was the Dobrofskys. Or Write Before Christmas on Hallmark Channel, which features a reunion of One Tree Hill stars Chad Michael Murray and Torrey DeVitto? Theirs too.
The Dobrofskys hadn't set out to become Christmas movie specialists (they actually got their start writing about serial killers), but like so many working screenwriters, the couple gravitated to what was selling and found they had a knack for screwball dialogue and clever spins on Christmas-movie conventions. Never mind that they don't celebrate Christmas themselves.
"We're liberal Jews writing Christmas movies," says Tippi, acknowledging the irony that their bread and butter is calibrated to appeal to decidedly goyishe red-state values. "They probably think we burn pictures of Donald Trump in our backyard. But it's a lot of Jews writing this stuff."
This year, the battle for holiday eyeballs has never been more intense, with two cable entities — Hallmark and Lifetime — airing an unending stream of brain cocoa since well before Halloween while fending off a new wave of invaders like Netflix. Lifetime will debut 30 original Christmas features this year, up from 18 in 2018. Hallmark, which has dominated the space, is premiering 40 new titles by season's end. Christmas programming now accounts for 30 percent of the network's annual budget and in return produces 30 percent of its annual total revenue, which S&P Global Market Intelligence places around $400 million. It's little wonder Netflix has gotten aggressive, too, rolling out six original live-action Christmas movies (including the third entry in its popular A Christmas Prince franchise). Figure in projects from Disney+, Freeform, OWN and others, and the total number of holiday movies premiering on various nontheatrical platforms this year is well over 100.
For buyers, the proof is in the Christmas pudding: December was Lifetime's most watched month of 2018 and even outperformed January 2019, which included the network's buzzy R. Kelly docuseries. This holiday season has already seen a 40 percent viewership increase over those numbers. "I don't think it's a coincidence that the world is in a chaotic, crazy place right now and that these movies are thriving," says Meghan Hooper White, senior vp original movies at Lifetime. "I think people really like the escape."
The seemingly insatiable appetite for feel-good Christmas fare has become a year-round bonanza for people like the Dobrofskys whose job it is to make the movies. But keeping up with demand is becoming overwhelming. "We're kind of farmers. They tell us which crop to grow and we do it," says Tim Johnson, a Vancouver-based producer of nearly 40 Christmas features for Hallmark and Lifetime. A majority of the movies film in the Great White North — Vancouver, mainly, but also Toronto, Ottawa and Winnipeg, where local crews have things down to a science and tax incentives are plentiful. "The production value you get in Canada goes a long way," says Hooper White. "The snow lasts longer up there. It's just more Christmassy up there."
The genre's tropes are well defined. The central plot typically revolves around a big-city girl finding yuletide love in small-town America. ("Lauren leaves everything behind in Boston to embark on a new chapter in her life and career," goes one typical Hallmark logline.) Other recurring motifs include military service ("Audrey and First Sergeant Matt have been writing each other since last Christmas …"); baking competitions ("Loretta will give her bakery away to whoever can re-create her famous '12 Days of Christmas' recipe") and the ubiquitous "skeptical writer" (as in, "a skeptical writer arrives in Evergreen to get the story on the town's 'too-good-to-be-true' Christmas fever").
But unlike just a few years ago, a simple meet-cute under the mistletoe will no longer do. Says Jeff Schenck, producer of more than 40 yuletide flicks with titles like A Husband for Christmas and The Dog Who Saved Christmas: "There's a whole list of boxes you have to check off. They've got to do a snow activity, like a snowball toss or a sledding contest. You have to have the cookie-baking scene. You have to bring all the conventions of Christmas."
The two biggest players have distinct takes on the genre. "Hallmark has done an amazing job of nailing down their brand — the idyllic small-town life," Johnson says. "Lifetime goes a little more urban." By that he means geographically — Lifetime stars don't flee the big city quite as often as Hallmark stars do — and demographically, as Lifetime openly courts African American viewers, who make up a sizable slice of its audience. (Keshia Knight Pulliam, Kim Fields, Kelly Rowland and Tatyana Ali all topline Lifetime releases this year.)
By contrast, Hallmark casts whites overwhelmingly as its leads — but the network did make a gesture toward inclusiveness this year by producing four movies featuring African American leads and two Hanukkah-themed movies, Holiday Date and Double Holiday. "We're looking for the best stories that will resonate in the best way," Bill Abbott, president and CEO of Hallmark parent Crown Media, told THR's TV's Top 5 podcast. "Broadening out the demographic is something we're always thinking about and considering."
Lifetime has even embraced same-sex romance. "Viewers want to see themselves! [We] want to see ourselves!" says Hooper White. "Almost all [our holiday films] feature people of color in leading or supporting roles, and four movies this year feature stories with LGBTQ relationships, including a same-sex kiss." Netflix's YA book adaptation Let It Snow features a lesbian kiss, among other decidedly un-Hallmark moments (a character accidentally cuts his nipple while shaving his chest).
"There was never any discussion with Netflix regarding how family-friendly the movie needed to be," explains Let It Snow director Luke Snellin, who says everyone was on the same page, "striving to capture this specific feeling, the sweetness and melancholy of the holiday." Despite its racier material, Snow is meant for the whole family to enjoy, says Snellin, who studied examples of Hallmark and Lifetime Christmas movies before embarking on his own. "There's a level of comfort in them," says Snellin. "And that's a good thing."
There are no million-dollar windfalls to be had, but screenwriters can make a decent living churning out Christmas flicks. Hallmark pays around $50,000 to $60,000 per script (plus residuals) on movies generally budgeted around $2 million to $2.5 million. In-demand writers like the Dobrofskys can earn a little more. "They pay on time," says Neal. "And because the audience is so loyal, we get steady residuals." Adds Tippi: "It's hard as a writer — you have to get used to wild ups and downs. But [the Christmas movie boom] has changed everything. It's allowed us to make a great, steady living. Plus it's nice that things actually get made. Our scripts are on the air in three months." Lifetime is also open to spec script submissions — which worked out nicely for Cassie Doyle, 27. Appalled at the caliber of screenplays she was reading while working as an assistant to Hooper White at the network's Manhattan headquarters, Doyle tried her hand at writing them herself. Her first two attempts were greenlit by Lifetime and aired during Christmas 2018. "There's a formula to them," says Doyle. "But the creativity comes in finding a way to make it stand out within the guidelines. I love riddles and puzzles, so it's up my alley."
The Christmas Movie Wars have raged on for a decade now. Before that, holiday-themed movies of the week existed, but it was Abbott who saw the potential in creating an all-day Christmas programming block. "Countdown to Christmas" kicked off quaintly with 12 Christmas movies airing between Thanksgiving and Christmas 2009. A decade later, the first of this year's Hallmark Christmas films premiered Oct. 25 and continues through Jan. 1. Along the way, Hallmark has given thriving second acts to TV stars like Candace Cameron Bure and Lacey Chabert (who have each starred in eight, a record).
"When you are on your eighth Christmas movie it becomes more challenging in the sense that there is very specific criteria to adhere to but you don't want them to feel the same," says Cameron Bure, dubbed the "Christmas Queen" by Hallmark. Finding new locations and star combinations — the network tends to use the same group of actors, like a repertory — gets increasingly tricky. While writers and producers tend to move between buyers, networks tend to be more proprietary about their stars. "Once you're in, you're in," says Cameron Bure of Hallmark's star stable, which she likens to "a family … and because I've done so many of these, I get to choose the newbies." As for the familiarity and repetition baked into the genre, Cameron Bure speculates it has everything to do with "why it has grown every year. Fans love the expectation of it. People can roll their eyes — but the success is for that reason."
As for Lifetime, which trended away from holiday movies several decades ago in favor of true crime and thrillers, it has been playing Christmas catch-up and is doing an impressive job of it, greenlighting a full month of originals from a stack of more than 600 submissions — everything from spec scripts to outlines to book adaptations. Hallmark throws a similarly wide net. "We find them from all different places," says Michelle Vicary, evp of programming and network publicity for Crown Media. "We might start with a book — we did that a few years ago with The Christmas Train — or something as short as a logline." The network has even pulled plots from newspaper headlines, like Once Upon a Christmas, about a love that blooms between an organ transplant patient and the man who gives her half his liver.
Netflix distances itself from the cable rivals by referring to its Christmas offerings as "independent features" — never TV movies — and has leaned in this year with releases like The Knight Before Christmas and A Christmas Prince: The Royal Baby. (The streamer withholds viewing statistics, but did let it slip in a 2017 tweet that 53 people watched A Christmas Prince every day for 18 days. The Christmas Chronicles, a Santa Claus movie from Netflix starring Kurt Russell, streamed 20 million times in its first week, Ted Sarandos boasted in 2018 — what he likened to a $200 million theatrical opening.)
If there is a downside to the Christmas movie gold rush, it's raised expectations — year after year, the buyers expect more bang for their buck. "There's money to be made," says Schenck. "But you could almost argue the opposite. If you look at the movies made before 2012, there wasn't a whole lot of snow in them. Now they want real snow. They want the biggest casts. Every frame needs to be filled with Christmas cheer. The wardrobe people, set decorators, props department — everyone demands more money to deliver on that."
Monika Mitchell, director of five Christmas movies including Netflix's The Knight Before Christmas, stresses the arduousness of the Christmas moviemaking process: "You have to consider how physically difficult it will be to create the eye candy, to conjure winter where there is no winter, then to decorate it all for Christmas."
If Hallmark is demanding it, that's because it's clearly working: Last year, 85 million viewers tuned in to its holiday programming; three weeks into this cycle, Countdown to Christmas already has exceeded 40 million and will all but certainly surpass 2018's numbers. In the meantime, the Christmas movie gold rush is showing no signs of slowing. "There will never be too many of these things," says Schenck. "The consumers are rabid. The space is infinite."
This story first appeared in the Dec. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.