Hallmark holiday movies deliver comfort and joy in dark times
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Ruthie Caitham's driver's license and other official documentation insist she resides in Vallejo. Ah, but when fall and winter roll around, Caitham proudly proclaims that she dwells in "Hallmark Land."
"It's my happy place," she says. "And in these crazy, hateful times, I want to live where people care for each other."
Don't check your GPS. Hallmark Land isn't a spot on a map, but a powerful head rush of feel-good vibes, romantic happily-ever-afters and relentless outpourings of holiday cheer that emanate from the sleighload of made-for-TV Christmas movies annually offered by the Hallmark Channel and its cable sibling, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries.
"I can't help it. They just warm your heart," says Caitham, who has been known to watch 35 or more of the festive flicks at this time of year. And that doesn't include reruns and/or the vintage Hallmark movies she owns on DVD.
Clearly, she's not the only one mainlining this televisual comfort fare. What began as a modest TV experiment has become a full-blown, twinkle-lit, pop-cultural juggernaut enjoyed by millions and mimicked by other outlets like Lifetime, Netflix and UPtv.
Between 2002 and 2008, the Hallmark Channel produced no more than six holiday films per year — and only one in several of those years. In 2010, that number jumped to a dozen, and by 2017, it was up to 20.
This year, across a schedule that kicked off before Halloween, the two Hallmark networks will combine to gift fans with 40 new original yuletide movies — matching last year's output, which cumulatively drew 70 million unduplicated viewers.
Don't be surprised if the audience grows even bigger this winter. After all, 2020 has been marked by political and social turbulence and a health crisis that has left so many of us anxious and stressed. Hallmark holiday movies, with their abundance of comfort and joy, surely will be counted on to deliver some much-needed relief.
"Our movies are rooted in warmth and positivity, meaningful connections, family gatherings," says Michelle Vicary, the executive vice president of programming for Crown Media Family Networks, who hopes it's a "winning formula" that will bring viewers "much-needed levity and holiday cheer at the end of a tough year."
Those scenes of meaningful connections and family gatherings? They now come when holiday gatherings across America figure to be greatly downsized — or curtailed altogether. And Hallmark's largely predictable storylines? They arrive amid highly unpredictable times.
The Hallmark formula is simple, on the surface at least: Give the audience what it wants, including familiar plots stuffed with unlikely romances, holiday homecomings, charmingly snow-covered hamlets and life-affirming tales of redemption.
And by the end of two hours, good triumphs over evil, the requisite love connections are made, Scrooge-like tendencies are squelched, Christmas is saved from ruin, and everything is tied up in a big, bright, beautiful bow. Last year, that bow also wrapped up two Hanukkah movies, Hallmark's first.
Along the way, Hallmark capitalizes by going against the grain — offering a cozy alternative to the dark and edgy dramas that are lathered over much of television and populating its casts with people in their 40s and 50s, a demographic underserved by the broadcast networks.
And many of its go-to leading ladies, like Lacey Chabert, Candace Cameron Bure and Holly Robinson Peete, have become part of the seasonal TV family over the years, making visits as regularly as Charlie Brown and Rudolph.
"We are honored to work with some of the best talent in the entertainment industry," says Vicary. "They each have amazing bodies of work with loyal fan bases who also loved the (previous shows) in which they starred. Many of our stars tell me that when they are recognized in public, they are thanked by viewers for the Hallmark Channel movies they make. That makes me so proud."
Of course, the holiday films have their Grinchy detractors. Critics call them "corny" and "sappy." Late-night comedians and "Saturday Night Live" have gleefully mocked them. Even Caitham glumly reveals that her husband "rolls his eyes" when the holiday onslaught begins. (He undoubtedly will be getting a lump of coal in his stocking).
Vacaville resident Lisa Rico used to be among the naysayers. That was until early this year, when a longtime friend, Debbie Segura, was in the final stages of a battle with terminal brain cancer. During the months before her death, Rico would drop by and spend some TV time with Segura, who only wanted to watch Hallmark movies.
"It was a really lovely and calming experience," Rico recalls. "They made her feel good. And considering that she was in so much pain, that's really saying something."
Rico soon came to believe that such films "serve a beautiful purpose." And since Segura's passing in April, Rico has often found herself watching more of them — with an 8-by-10 photo of her pal perched right near the TV.
"I'm still watching them with her," Rico says. "So often this year, I just can't bring myself to watch the news. The world is so dark and depressing. So I go and find the Hallmark Channel. There are times when you just want to tune out everything else and watch someone fall in love."
Obviously, many fans — so-called "Hall-markies" — will be yearning for the same thing, as their favorite channels unleash a blizzard of films that includes cheeky titles like "On the 12th Date of Christmas," "Jingle Bell Bride" and "Never Kiss a Man in a Christmas Sweater."
In addition, the 2020 slate appears to be more diverse. It features a gay couple trying to adopt ("The Christmas House," starring Jonathan Bennett and Brad Harder) as well as a woman who discovers via a DNA test that she's Jewish ("Love, Lights, Hanukkah!" with Mia Kirshner, Ben Savage and Marilu Henner).
"This year, our holiday table is bigger and more welcoming than ever," says Vicary. "The movies reflect our most diverse representation of talent, stories and families."
Hallmark is also expanding its holiday empire with, among other things, wines, books, a new Monopoly game, "Countdown to Christmas"-themed tea tins, special apparel and, of course, enough reruns of past classics to keep viewers experiencing a potent case of mistletoe merriment through January.
That's all fine with Caitham, who encourages others to jump on the Hallmark bandwagon.
"If you need to take a break from reality and go to fantasyland and feel good about the world," she says, "this is for you."