A Hallmark Christmas movie is a beloved staple of holiday programming, and it has a certain rhythm. A high-powered woman returns to her small town for the holidays, bruised by some romantic or professional disappointment. She faces a Christmassy challenge and finds solace in her family, the town, its traditions, and a handsome man she didn’t expect, even if the rest of us saw it coming.
You might think it’s easy to dream up a premise, but not everybody can sustain the magic over 120 pages of a script. Ron Oliver is one of the fixers Hallmark calls — sometimes a week before shooting — when a movie is missing that special touch.
“It’s hard to find writers who understand that brand,” the writer-director says. “The ones we use again and again, they tend to be the ones that get it.”
When he dives into a script, he usually sees the same issues. Writers are lured into the rom-com trope of argument between the romantic leads. That won’t work — this isn’t When Harry Met Hallmark.
“You want banter, you don’t want bicker, so you have to pull back on the sharp words they would have with each other,” he says. “You don’t want to hit big heavy-duty emotions.”
Another problem Oliver sees is too much festive restraint. Some writers seem hesitant to load each page with seasonal cheer. A scene with two people walking down a street is a waste. He advises adding a chestnut roasting stand, a Christmas tree lot, or a skating rink.
“You take the same stuff you do in a regular movie and you Christmas the crap out of it,” he says, laughing.
Hallmark ran its first original Christmas movie in 2002, and within a few years, it had three or four new movies each holiday season. The Countdown to Christmas franchise began in 2009 with 12 movies. Every year since 2011, it has topped the previous year’s total. Which brings us to this year.
He shakes his head at the obstacles that could be easily overcome and the way big cities are casually slagged in favour of the quaint small town. The stakes couldn’t be lower, he says in one episode about this year’s Christmas Joy. A “keenly intelligent market researcher” named Joy returns to small-town North Carolina to help her aunt recover from a ladder fall, rekindles a romance with old crush, and takes her aunt’s place in the cookie competition. With a few exceptions, the protagonists are usually white. The couple is always heterosexual. Love, togetherness and Christmas always triumph.
One night, Thompson watched a misunderstood uncle make an emotional speech about how he’d not always dealt with things “in the right way.” But then the man said “I’ve said a lot of things that I’m proud of.”
Thompson thought he misheard. It was past 1 a.m.
When he mentioned it on the podcast, his co-hosts didn’t believe it.
“I rewound it three times — and he forgot the word ‘not,’ ” he says.
“And Hallmark said wrap it, that’s good!” one of his friends chimed in.
While Hallmark squares off against similar fare from Netflix and Lifetime, nobody can beat it for quantity. The company churns out the movies like their characters bake cookies: by the dozen, following a trusted recipe. Most are shot in 15 days on a $2-million (U.S.) budget, starring a female lead in her 30s or 40s. Of the 37 movies this year, 17 were shot in Canada. Vancouver is a popular filming location, but in recent years, Ontario has lured the company to northern cities like Sudbury and North Bay with a grant program.
Oliver has written or directed 10 Christmas films for the network. When he comes up with a premise, he imagines that feeling of being 6 years old on Christmas morning in Dundalk, Ont., walking downstairs to the living room, seeing the tree and presents. How does he go back to that place as an adult? How does he bring millions of us with him?
“People tend to look at these movies as perhaps a little bit cheesy, or a little bit simplistic, but there is a really strong sense of the hero’s journey,” he says. “You’ve got this character, she’s a high-powered executive, but she’s unhappy. Something is missing, whether it’s love or a sense of completion. There is something missing and the journey back to Christmas is this thing that fixes her or him.”
Bobby Chaumont grew up in Sudbury and played for the local Ontario Hockey League team for four years, and he now plays in Europe. Last spring, when his season was ending in France, his brother sent him an email. A hockey movie was being filmed in Sudbury, and the local casting company was looking for extras who could skate. Every summer, Chaumont comes home to work, so his brother thought he might be interested.
The 34-year-old had no idea that certain stretches of Sudbury’s downtown had been doubling as New York, or that the nearby community of Copper Cliff — built around a mine site discovered in 1885 — had been a charming stand in for small-town America. He didn’t know that Ontario’s Ministry of Energy, Northern Development and Mines intersected with Hollywood.
“I’ll be honest, I never watched a Hallmark movie in my life before,” Chaumont says from Germany, where he plays for EHC Waldkraiburg.
In 2013, the ministry made changes to its Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp. (NOHFC) to lure more filmmakers to places like Sudbury and North Bay. As long as they employ a Canadian production company and satisfy several conditions, including local spending and employment, companies like Hallmark are reimbursed to a maximum of $500,000 a picture for their northern spend (with exceptions for longer television series). Hallmark has been given $6 million for the 12 Christmas movies it has shot in Northern Ontario in the last five years.
Each Hallmark Christmas movie needs 300 to 500 extras to marvel at a tree lighting, skate around a rink or mingle at a party, and Micheline Blais is the woman who finds them. Her conservative estimate is that Hallmark has paid close to $500,000 in wages to northern Ontario background actors this year, for Christmas movies alone. A ministry official says each production typically comes with 44 local jobs, not counting extras.
Blais always wanted to work in the film industry, but her parents encouraged her to be practical. When she was growing up in Sudbury, the idea of a film career in that city was a non-starter. So she went to nursing school, and until a few years ago, she was training actors to be standardized patients for the Medical Council of Canada exams.
“I always kept my foot in with indie projects, worked on little things here and there,” she says. “And now I get to live the dream in my hometown.”
Blais owns Cast North. She casts local actors, stand-ins, photo doubles and hundreds of extras. For Hallmark movies, she’s usually looking for a diverse crowd with no tattoos, no piercings and no facial hair.
“During Movember and hunting season in northern Ontario, it is very challenging to find males without facial hair,” she says.
When you tell background actors to bring a “winter wardrobe” to set, some locals show up with bulky parkas, plaid and big boots — the “northern Ontario tundra look,” as Blais calls it. Hallmark wants colourful jewel tones. They need to convince viewers that these people are living in an American small town, or maybe New York. She always has a few spare coats.
The films are often shot in the late summer and fall, with three weeks of prep work to confirm the local cast, crew, equipment and locations, and then there are 15 days of shooting.
On set, background actors are reminded to be happy, lively, and to channel the holiday spirit.
“That kind of stuff really shows on camera, everyone really glows,” says background actor Bobby Chaumont, who this summer had stints as a cop, hockey player, military aide, search-and-rescue worker and man milling about a silent auction.
For Pride and Prejudice and Christmas — starring Party of Five alum Lacey Chabert — he was upgraded to a “caroller.” He sang “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and snagged his first ACTRA credit. (It was cut, but it still counts and he’s two speaking roles away from being a full ACTRA member.) He was fascinated to see how the movie was shot. On location, there was a buzz, with crowds coming out to watch the shoots.
Blais says that people are working hard on their craft. “It’s giving them hope for other career opportunities,” she says. “It really is exciting times in the North.”
As he slogs his way through the films, Daniel Thompson likes to imagine the Hallmark writers’ room, with three wheels on the wall. The first wheel is situational, the second has romantic scenarios, and the third is just a circle of smiley faces. Thompson knows that some of the films are adapted from books, but he feels like it’s the same plot, over and over again.
He compares the movies to cheeseburgers, comfort food on the screen. People who like cheeseburgers are always happy to try another. Also, if you miss 15 minutes because your child is having a meltdown, you won’t be lost.
“I do think that Hallmark knows exactly what they’re doing,” Thompson says.
Hallmark does not accept unsolicited pitches from the public. It works with a stable of writers and producers who pitch them premises year round. If you bring an idea that works with the brand, they let you make your movie.
Says writer-director Oliver: “This is going to sound crazy, but it’s one of the most artistically rewarding experiences that you can have.”
Oliver’s first Hallmark film was Bridal Fever, shot in Toronto. Born in Barrie, he got his start as a magician, and hosted a YTV clip show in the 1980s. Low-res footage of him microwaving water in the YTV offices appears on YouTube. He also recalls throwing New Kids on the Block dolls off a rooftop to see which member of the group was the most aerodynamic.
Oliver began writing spec scripts (on a typewriter) and got his big break when he sold a horror script that became Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II in 1985. He now lives in Palm Springs, Calif., and directs slapstick, horror and comedy projects, but every year, he has his “sugar cake” and does a couple of Hallmark movies. It’s a nice way to end the year.
Oliver says the typical Christmas script should take around four weeks to write — and if it goes longer, the story likely needs a rethink.
“Again, the kind of movies I make, this is not Tree of Life,” he says, laughing as he references the Palme d’Or-winning film. “Everybody has a different methodology.”
He estimates that one-third of the films are based on books. They don’t have to be bestsellers — “just cute stories that can work within our paradigm,” he says.
There are no Christmas dinner throwdowns over immigration freezes or the Mueller investigation. Nobody is yelling.
“You want people to have a respite from that stuff,” he says.
While the movies are apolitical, Slate writer Zachary Jason cited their “red-state appeal,” in a 2017 piece about Hallmark’s Christmas offerings.
“As much as these movies offer giddy, predictable escapes from Trumpian chaos, they all depict a fantasy world in which America has been Made Great Again.”
Oliver says some people call Hallmark a “Christian right-wing network,” but he doesn’t think that’s fair. While it occasionally does a movie with a specific faith element, he says the network paints with an “extraordinarily broad brush,” so everyone can watch.
In Canada, Corus Entertainment recently announced an exclusive multi-year partnership with the Hallmark Channel. Their W Network has featured Hallmark movies in the past, but this deal is all-encompassing, giving the network exclusive Canadian licensing rights to the movies and branded stunts. Since the launch of “Countdown to Christmas” this November, W Network is the most watched network in Canada on weekends. Their audience has grown 68 per cent with women aged 25 to 54, and 101 per cent with adults 18 to 34, over the same period last year.
“Hallmarkers are really loyal to the brand,” says Carolyn Spriet, president of Hallmark Canada. “Our phone has been ringing off the hook with people just saying, it’s the greatest, it’s here, finally I can watch it here in Canada.”
Slate called 2017’s lineup of Hallmark movies “42 hours of sugary, sexist, preposterously plotted, plot hole-festooned, belligerently traditional, ecstatically Caucasian cheer,” with “occasional sightings of Christmas sweater-wearing black people.” (A Fox News columnist responded: It was a “throwback to an age when Hollywood produced family-friendly films and love stories that did not involve leather and whips.”)
A handful of this year’s Hallmark Christmas movies star non-white leads, including Christmas Everlasting, this year’s “Hall of Fame” movie — a designation that means a bigger budget, bigger stars and more time to shoot. Oliver directed the film and has a co-writing credit on the script. It was shot in Atlanta and starred Tatyana Ali, Patti LaBelle and Dondre Whitfield.
“Ah, two people of color!” one woman said on the company’s Facebook page. Another viewer noted that she was about to boycott the channel but was happy to see diversity, and hoped the network would keep it up “and make movies that reflect society and the many rich cultures of today.”
“It was a very conscious decision on Hallmark’s part,” Oliver says, “and it’s the first time in the history of the Hallmark Hall of Fame movies that they had a specifically diverse cast up front.” The story also had death and grief, the type of sharp edges Hallmark films tend to avoid. Earlier this year, Oliver lost his mother and his beloved dog Crawford T. Manchester, who he likes to put into his movies. He says he poured all of that loss into this film, and was able to sneak the dog’s face onto a donation jar in one scene, and a can of cat food in another.
Thompson, the Hallmark hater, says Christmas Everlasting was his favourite of the bunch so far for its more realistic romance. (According to Hallmark, Christmas Everlasting was in the top five or six for ratings in the U.S., behind movies starring Candace Cameron Bure, Lacey Chabert and LeAnn Rimes. In Canada, it was the top TV movie in November among women 25 to 54, according to Corus.)
Oliver says people like it for all the typical reasons, “but also because they’re seeing reflections of themselves in a movie.”
One group that has not seen itself in an overt way is the LGBTQ community. This year, Thompson noticed that Road to Christmas had a brother character who seemed to be coded as gay. The character had a male business partner and it was implied they live together, “but they don’t ever come out and say it,” he says.
Oliver wasn’t involved in Road to Christmas, but he’s done the same thing, adding a same-sex couple to a church scene or a party.
“I must say that Hallmark has been incredibly embracing of my husband and I,” he says, adding that there are other LGBTQ people who work at the company. The company’s social justice report notes that it was designated one of the best places to work for LGBTQ equality by the Human Rights Campaign. “There’s not a sense of we can’t do gay,” Oliver says. “What they are aware of is that the culture has slowly changed.”
JiaoJiao Shen, a Hallmark Cards spokesperson, says the company has heard from its consumers and critics and has responded with more diverse actors in leading roles this year. She says that in 2019, two movies will celebrate the Jewish faith. While Shen does not work for Hallmark Channel, she says she believes “that we are looking at ways to represent LGBT relationships in our films as well.” (Hallmark launched its LGBTQ-specific line of cards in 2015, but has always had non-gender-specific relationship cards.)
“We are actively pursuing a more diverse range of talent both in front of and behind the camera,” says Michelle Vicary, executive vice-president of programming for Crown Media, in the Hallmark social responsibility report of 2017. “We are working toward expanding in this area further.”
Ron Oliver thinks that someday, he’ll probably be the one who shoots the first Christmas movie with a married same-sex couple.
“I think they get a little gun-shy, you know, and rightfully so,” he says, noting that when the network does something that feels “off brand” to a “small percentage” of their audience, they are deluged with mail — like the time they ran a Good Witch marathon on Easter weekend.
Three times a year, at their offices in Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury, staff with the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp. comb through funding applications. They look at projected spending in northern Ontario, the track record of the applicants, the feasibility and the cast.
Since 2013, the government has paid out $116 million to 174 projects like Letterkenny, Through Black Spruce, and Indian Horse for a portion of their northern spending. A spokesperson says those projects have invested more than $500 million in the North, bolstering the local film industry and sustaining the equivalent of 2,700 annual jobs since 2013.
Jonathon Condratto, the film liaison for Greater Sudbury, says the industry loves Hallmark movies for the “steady flow of work” they provide, and the opportunities they create for career advancement. Historically known as a mining community, Sudbury now has 15 to 35 productions filming within its boundaries each year, and hundreds of people working as grips, location managers and producers. “We’re starting to get more directors and writers that are starting to come from Sudbury,” he says. “It’s kind of exciting to see how it grew.”
In North Bay, there were 16 productions filmed this year, and six were Hallmark Christmas movies. Officials cite the lack of permit fees, low traffic and commute times, and the financial incentives as the reason North Bay is an attractive place to film.
Many people credit Sudbury native David Anselmo for helping to build the industry.
His IMDB page has many credits for Hallmark movies, including four Hallmark Christmas projects this year (and another for Netflix). Anselmo’s two companies trumpet the “Northern advantage” in their literature. Hideaway Pictures is a production company that offers local location scouting, crew and casting services, along with consulting to help companies “identify and facilitate regional financing opportunities.” His Northern Ontario Film Studios is a self-described “one-stop shop” with a sound stage, mobile unit vehicles and equipment. In 2014, William H. White, a rental equipment supplier, opened a Sudbury location, partnering with Anselmo.
“While we’re filming, he’s thinking about next year,” says casting expert Micheline Blais. “He’s already making sure that everybody has a job.”
Ron Oliver is thinking about next year too. A friend who usually does action movies came to him with a great idea, and the two men pitched Hallmark together.
They’ll work on the script soon, “but I can almost guarantee we’ll have to rewrite it three weeks before we go to the floor,” he says. “It’s just the way it works.”
When he sits down to think about how to bring a protagonist back to that magical Christmas feeling, he’ll probably think of Dundalk when he was a boy: the perfect town north of Guelph with a big Christmas tree, decorations on the local shops, and a pageant at the community centre.
“Went back there twenty years ago; nothing but empty storefronts and strip malls,” he writes in an email. “This is the appeal of Hallmark Christmas movies; going home to a place that doesn’t exist anymore …”