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A version of this story first appeared in the July 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Christmas always has been a special time for former Desperate Housewives star Nicollette Sheridan, conjuring up warm memories of holiday seasons with her grandparents when she was growing up in snowy Sussex, England.
So what better way to announce her return to television after her career was interrupted by an arduous legal battle than to star in The Christmas Spirit, a movie based on her idea, which she is executive producing and starring in this December for Hallmark Channel — which prides itself on doing more family-oriented holiday programming during the last two months of the year than any other broadcast or cable outlet?
“I’ve always wanted to make a timeless Christmas movie,” says Sheridan, “and I wanted to create a character that children would enjoy and look up to and adults would learn from as well. So I thought what better place to do that than Hallmark?”
In the past four years under CEO Bill Abbott, Hallmark Channel has ramped up its holiday programming each year until it runs pretty much around the clock from early November through New Year’s, tied to merchandising and promotion in 3,000 Hallmark Gold Crown stores nationwide.
The current Christmas in July programming is timed to coincide with the retail store’s announcement of which Keepsake Ornaments it will offer later this year. The ornaments change each year and are collectable.
But, the real action is in the last two months of the year.
“We have tripled the number of hours of holiday content compared to anybody else,” says Abbott. “Everybody can say they’re No. 1 in something, and everybody twists the numbers to do that. But the reality is over eight consecutive weekends in primetime we deliver the highest level of audience throughout the holiday season — and that includes ESPN, sports and news networks. We’ve created a destination with our original content through the holidays in terms of being that reliable family-friendly place for high-quality offerings viewers just love during the holidays.”
This year, Hallmark Movie Channel for the first time will get into the holiday spirit, running a dozen original movies as well as those aired in past years alongside acquired Christmas movies old and new. Some of those originals from past years also have been running this summer on Hallmark Channel as part of its Christmas In July programming.
The prime spots each holiday are reserved for the new original movies that air on the Hallmark Channel on weekends throughout the season.
Sheridan’s The Christmas Spirit, scheduled to air Dec. 1, is one of four holiday-themed movies being produced for Hallmark by Brad Krevoy Television. Krevoy is an executive producer on all the movies along with Francisco Gonzalez, Alexandre Coscas and Eric Jarboe.
Sheridan gets a story-by and executive producer credit (along with her company Wyke Lane Productions), in addition to being the star.
The Christmas Spirit was written and is being directed by Jack Angelo (Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction). It is similar to It’s a Wonderful Life but set in the present day. It centers on Charlotte Hart (Sheridan), a woman out to save a quiet New England town from a ruthless real estate developer.
The character of Hart is meant to recur in a series of future franchise movies for Hallmark.
Sheridan says this is a very different character for her, even though over the past three decades she has played a wide range of roles in movies and on TV, most notably on Desperate Housewives.
Sheridan was forced off that show in 2009 when her contract was not renewed. She filed a lawsuit against ABC and the show’s creator, Marc Cherry, in 2010 for unfair dismissal and a claim that he hit her during production. The case went to trial and the testimony brought out the devastating impact the case had on her career — making it difficult for her to get cast in any major TV shows or movies.
She lost the case but is continuing appeals and has another trial on a workman’s compensation claim starting in early December.
Sheridan is building her comeback on roles, like Charlotte, that she creates herself. She also is writing a TV comedy she plans to try to sell to a network later this year.
“I really feel I’m stepping back out in a very positive light after taking a lot of time for reflection and analyzing what it is I really want and the types of people I want to engage with in my life,” Sheridan told The Hollywood Reporter.
Hallmark also has acquired pitches for three other movies from Krevoy, all of which are in development as scripts.
A Royal Christmas, tentatively scheduled for Christmas 2014, centers on a young girl who, after accepting her boyfriend’s proposal, learns he is a prince. She must then gain the acceptance of his mother, who looks down on her humble origins. It is being written by Michael and Janeen Damian, who did the 2011 Hallmark original A Princess for Christmas, their second-highest-rated original movie that year. Michael Damian also will direct.
Christmas Neverending, slated for 2015 and being written and directed by Robbie Fox (So I Married an Axe Murderer, Playing for Keeps), features a Groundhog Day-esque plot about a girl who learns over Christmas vacation that her parents are planning to divorce. She wants them to fall in love again and makes a wish to repeat her vacation until they reignite their love.
Finally there’s Better Than Perfect, a film about a woman’s search for the perfect man that is being written by Brad Holmes (Prison Women) and executive produced by casting director Penny Perry (The Neverending Story, The 12 Disasters of Christmas) and Eugene Davis.
“I think they’ve created a tremendous niche for themselves during the holiday season,” says Krevoy. “Their ratings are tremendous. America watches this channel more than anybody [else’s] during the holidays. They’ve become the market leader in this area.”
The Hallmark approach is not just to market in the usual ways with on-air and print ads, billboards and online (especially through social media), but to tie in closely with the Gold Crown stores.
The promotional push starts with the Gold Crown mailers that go out in September to millions of homes. The stores have signage and point-of-sale displays that feature promotional licensed merchandise. For the past two years, that included stuffed plush animals called Jingle the Husky Pup and his girlfriend, Bell.
Jingle and Bell star in half-hour animated specials that air on the Hallmark Channel, and the DVDs are sold in the stores. They target viewers 2 to 11 years of age but, says Abbott, reach everyone in the family from the kids to the grandparents.
“The synergy that we are developing is exciting,” says Abbott. “We’ve just scratched the surface. We’re optimistic that for many years to come the TV services and stores will play big roles in driving each other’s businesses.”
Sheridan hopes to be part of that for years to come as well.
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