SALT LAKE CITY — Capt. Grace Garland returns home after two tours in Afghanistan. She finds herself stranded in a small town called River’s Crossing before Christmas. A local man offers her a place to stay and to show her everything she’s missed during the Christmas seasons she’s been away.
Ellie Hartman works as a baker in her small-town bakery making Christmas Kringles. Nick Carlingson, a big-city CEO, visits the bakery because he wants to modernize the store and lay off a bunch of people. She teaches him how to make cookies so she can prove that people matter more than money.
Kelly gets fired from her job at a Chicago art gallery. She returns home and meets a businessman named Leo, who can’t find good work-life balance with his children during the holiday season. Soon, they begin to spend time together, embracing the wonder of the Christmas season.
Don’t worry. There are 37 more.
In 2019, Hallmark was the highest-rated and most-watched cable network for the entire fourth quarter of the year among women ages 18 to 49 and 25 to 54. Hallmark Channel outperformed broadcast channels on Saturday nights for both households and the 25-54 demographic over ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox.
The channel doesn’t know what it’s like to not succeed during the holiday season.
And that’s trending upward. Three of the top 10 Hallmark Christmas movies aired in 2017 alone. And the channel has 40 Christmas movies lined up for the 2019 season. They began airing at the end of October and will run for 24 hours straight until Christmas. Seriously. They’re not stopping.
“Hallmark has cornered the market on ‘redemption through romance’ films, and they have a strong and dedicated audience,” said Kendall Phillips, a pop culture professor at Syracuse University. “I also suspect that in the modern era, with so much turmoil and conflict, viewers may be comforted with the knowledge that they can turn on Hallmark at any point during the day to feel some Christmas warmth during the holiday season.”
But new competitors — like Netflix and Disney Plus — could threaten Hallmark’s reign as the sparkling star atop the Christmas movie tree. With new Christmas content set to hit the streaming services and some classics still hanging around, Hallmark’s reign as Christmas king faces one of its toughest threats to date.
Will Hallmark movies survive the streaming wars?
Even though Hallmark leads the charge, competition has surfaced in recent years with networks and streaming services creating Christmas movies that tug at the heartstrings. Netflix has emerged as a prime competitor. Disney Plus — with an array of family friendly films, some of which are based on the Christmas season — has recently launched, too. Hallmark’s hold on Christmas no longer exists in a vacuum.
“Everyone’s getting in on Christmas. Everyone’s trying to get a little slice of that, you know, Christmas fruitcake,” said Karen Schaler, writer of Netflix’s “A Christmas Prince,” Hallmark’s “Christmas Camp” and Lifetime’s “Every Day is Christmas.”
Netflix has a slew of Christmas-themed films on the horizon. Stories like “Holiday in the Wild,” “A Christmas Prince: The Royal Baby,” “Let it Snow” and “Klaus” are among the holiday favorites set to hit the streaming service for 2019’s holiday season. That doesn’t even include holiday-themed reality shows that exist on the service, too. Similarly, Disney Plus has “Noelle,” featuring Anna Kendrick and Bill Hader, along with older classic Disney Christmas films like “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.”
Lifetime has been airing Christmas movies for as long as Hallmark, with its first Christmas film debuting in 1997. The Oprah Winfrey Network is following the same formula.
They don’t use cheap jokes, said Schaler. Those jokes don’t resonate with holiday films.
“Not Christmas,” she said. “Christmas is sacred. You leave it alone; you honor it.”
“I definitely say Hallmark has been the undisputed leader in the past 10 years.”
But, she said, Hallmark will need to elevate its game, creating diverse, powerful storytelling to keep pace with other networks jumping in on Christmas movies.
Phillips believes that each streaming service has its own niche audience to appeal to.
“If you are looking for heartwarming whimsy, then Disney Plus will have you covered,” he said. “If you are looking for heartwarming hookups, then Hallmark has what you need. And, for a holiday potpourri of everything else, Netflix is your place. Even Shudder has special Christmas horror programming.”
But Hallmark, experts agreed, will still win the day.
“We owe it to the viewers to tell these kind of stories at Christmas that they can count on,” Schaler said.
Tiffany Knoell, an assistant teaching professor for the department of popular culture at Bowling Green University, told the Deseret News that there is more than enough content for viewers on streaming services.
We just may not have enough to watch them all.
“A Christmas war? ... The better question is will there be enough hours in the day for viewers to get their fill,” she said.
A sense of relief
Hallmark Channel Christmas movies also offer a chance for B- and C-list actors and actresses a shot at redemption. No longer are they reduced to the viral hits of their pasts. No longer do they have to toil in obscurity.
Candace Cameron Bure, for example, has seen a resurgence of fame on the network with her regular Christmas movie appearances. Lori Loughlin even found a space on the Hallmark Channel (up until her recent legal troubles) with Christmas movies (and “When Calls the Heart” ). Danica McKellar, who played Winnie on “The Wonder Years,” has appeared in a few films. And don’t forget about Bethany Joy Lenz and Chad Michael Murray, teen stars of “One Tree Hill,” who have made appearances on Hallmark Channel Christmas movies, too.
The casts and crews for Hallmark movies rarely change, said Schaler. You’ll see the same actors, actresses, crews, staff, producers and directors bounce from film to film.
“And so it’s kind of a family and they’re all together,” Schaler said. “And they’re all trying to say the same message. And I think that’s really unique. And I think they do it really well.”
What makes a good Christmas movie?
Every year, they arrive. Hallmark movies unload by the dozens.
Phillips said Christmas movies often focus on redemption stories. Western society sees Christmas movies as “about someone seeing the error of their ways and being redeemed by and with their community.”
Phillips said Christmas is a visual holiday, which makes it more appealing to viewers.
“From the star to the trees to Santa’s red suit, Christmas is arguably the most visually distinct holiday, and motion pictures have learned how to incorporate that visual sense in creative ways,” he said.
Schaler said she treats Christmas like a character in her movies. It can’t just be a story in a Christmas setting — it needs to be “a beautiful setting and a magical setting that makes you want to feel like, I need to go there. I want to be in that story.” she said.
“I think it has to be the main character,” Schaler said. “And I think it has to be honored. And I don’t think you can just say, ‘I’m going to do a Christmas movie,’ throw up some white twinkle lights and try to sell it with a plot. That doesn’t hold the heart of Christmas. And I know that sounds corny, and I know that sounds cheesy. But that’s what I believe.”
Keeping the lights on, spreading positive messages and embracing the holiday spirit — that’s what Christmas movies are all about.
“For me, the key lesson is to appreciate those around you,” Phillips said. “From ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ to ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas,’ Christmas movies remind us to look around and be thankful for those around us and to show some kindness all year round.”