‘Switched for Christmas” has all the ingredients for a Hallmark Channel holiday movie. A small-town Christmas festival. Flirtation and decorating. Snowy epiphanies about what really matters. And Candace Cameron Bure, a Hallmark audience favorite who has starred in six Christmas movies for the network. This season the network doubled the actor’s presence: Ms. Bure plays identical twins who temporarily trade lives and stumble into romance.
The commitment to Christmas is total in the TV world of Hallmark, with wall-to-wall programming requiring year-round production. Thirty-three new and original holiday films are premiering on two Hallmark channels between Oct. 27 and Jan. 1—up from 28 new movies last year. That’s a total of 136 Christmas films produced by Crown Media Family Networks, which operates four Hallmark-branded channels, since the company ramped up its output of original movies in 2008.
Hallmark’s go-to producers are tasked with finding ultra-quaint settings without recycling the same charming inns, barns and town halls in multiple films. Vancouver-based Front Street Pictures coordinated five Christmas movies for Hallmark this year, the last of which is shooting now.
Front Street production manager Jamie Lake is accustomed to shooting Christmas movies in summer when actors sweat in their parkas. His crews create snowy landscapes with white drapery and truckloads of ice used to pack fish. In his office he has databases of potential locations and he spends days off driving around, hunting for buildings that look like they belong in a snow globe.
“Every movie wants that small, cute town and there’s only so many small, cute towns within driving distance of the film zone,” Mr. Lake says, referring to the Vancouver area in which productions receive tax credits.
Fort Langley, a picturesque village just east of Vancouver, is a little too popular with camera crews. So this year Mr. Lake pushed further east to Chilliwack, a farming community surrounded by mountains. He zeroed in on a narrow block with a barbershop and toy store, which he says was “perfect for the little parade” in “Rocky Mountain Christmas,” set in a fictional hamlet in Colorado.
An all-out approach to the holiday season is common in other industries such as retailing and radio, where more than 500 stations around the U.S. are expected to switch to an all-Christmas format this year, according to Nielsen. Some cable TV networks—including Disney’s Freeform, Ion, Lifetime and Up—roll out Christmas countdowns, featuring familiar hits and a handful of originals
During last year’s holiday takeover, the size of the flagship Hallmark Channel’s target audience—women ages 25 to 54—more than doubled the average of any previous month. In the first two weekends of this year’s Christmas blitz, Hallmark had the biggest audience of any cable network. The seasonal strategy has helped drive overall growth for the network, which saw its ratings among adult viewers under 50, the industry benchmark, grow by 31% last year.
However, Hallmark faces a unique challenge: producing three dozen movies about the same holiday while avoiding “Groundhog Day” repetition.
Often there’s a struggling family business that needs saving, like the cozy inn in “Christmas at Holly Lodge,” the old-fashioned holiday shop in “Sharing Christmas,” or the theater that loses its lease in “Christmas Encore.”
A big-time star encounters small-town romance in “Marry Me at Christmas,” “A Song for Christmas” and “Rocky Mountain Christmas.” In “The Perfect Christmas Present,” the hero is a personal gift buyer known to his clients as Mr. Christmas—not unlike the nickname for the title character in “Miss Christmas,” whose job is finding the perfect tree for Chicago.
Executives say it’s the characters that make each movie unique. “Even if there’s a similar tradition in one movie to the next, that doesn’t mean the characters aren’t going on different journeys,” says Michelle Vicary, executive vice president of programming and network publicity for Crown Media Family Networks. The company is a division of the Kansas City, Mo.-based Hallmark Cards, Inc.
In addition to a feel-good finale, there’s an atmospheric checklist for every movie. “Buying a Christmas tree. Wrapping gifts. Thinking of gifts. Baking and cooking meals. Family gatherings. All of the things that you think of as traditional,” says Randy Pope, senior vice president of programming.
Snow is a dealbreaker. “Every year we get scripts with something like, ‘It’s the first year in the country’s snowiest city that they had no snow.’ Nope. Not on Hallmark it’s not,” Ms. Vicary says.
Tradition extends to the stars who return annually to Hallmark movies, especially actresses famed for TV roles in the 1980s and ’90s, including Ms. Bure and Lori Loughlin (“Full House”), Lacey Chabert (“Party of Five”) and Danica McKellar (“The Wonder Years”).
Hallmark’s formula has resulted in a certain sameness in casting. All the romantic leading roles in this year’s batch of 33 movies are played by white actors, except for the Hispanic stars of “Enchanted Christmas,” Alexa and Carlos PenaVega.
“We’re working on it and doing everything we can to create the best cast for each movie and also look at diversity as part of our strategy,” Ms. Vicary says, noting an expanding roster of stars, such as Holly Robinson Peete and Rodney Peete, the African-American couple whose family is at the center of Hallmark’s first unscripted series, premiering in February.
Inducing yuletide déjà vu is part of the point for fans. Testimonials on Twitter include “I’ve done nothing but watch Hallmark Christmas movies for the past 3 days” and “i am so beyond ready to binge hallmark christmas movies nonstop for the next two months.” The recognizable rhythms also work for people who enjoy them ironically. As one viewer tweeted, they “may be cheesy and predictable, but that sure as hell isn’t stopping me from watching them.”
Hallmark executives are now picking scripts for 2018’s Christmas lineup, and filling smaller orders for other seasonal movie blocks such as “Very Valentine’s,” “Summer Nights” and “Fall Harvest.”
Appeared in the November 9, 2017, print edition as ‘On Hallmark, It’s Always Christmas.’