Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Report on Hallmark Movies 2023

don't worry, they play brother and sister

So, here we are in 2023.  

In addition to Direct to Streaming Christmas movies, I've been throwing on the Hallmark Channel since way back in November.  

Apparently what both Jamie and I need this year is to just zone out for 90 minutes from time to time, and to be able to talk over a movie featuring characters we don't really care about a whole lot.  And that's absolutely the intention of a Hallmark Christmas movie - a minimum of drama and plot, reasonably good looking people predictably falling for each other, and a happy ending that guarantees these people will now be as boring as you are, because the events of this movie was the biggest thing to ever happen to them.

I copped to watching the film in 2015 and wrote my treatise on Hallmark movies back in 2017, and I think it shocked a lot of you to find out how very, very much I know about these movies that so many so casually get sniffy about (with good reason, tbh).  But a lot has occurred since 2017.  We're in the dark future of 2023 now, and the world is not what it was.  

A very, very big part of me would love to know how Hallmark works and how these movies come into being.  I have some theories based loosely on what I knew from a friend's mom who wrote Harlequin Romance novels, but there's zero confirmation on any of this.  I'd just be guessing.  

But it's not a mistake that these movies have similarities that go beyond "girl with a Christmas-themed name goes to small town, meets guy in plaid".   It's an endless sea of similarities, and there's practically nothing else like it in media - like, they get to do drafts and check stats to see what works in real time as they release 85 new movies each year (this is barely hyperbole - there are 42 in 2023). But I strongly suspect Hallmark is cooking up packages they send out to potential writers with a list of things that their movie should contain, and then they make most of those scripts.   Again - I don't know this, but otherwise the similarities would only happen because of Holiday Magic.

Over the years the movies have, in fact, changed as Hallmark has tweaked their formula.  Folks who don't actually watch Hallmark Christmas movies assume they're still making the same plot where a young woman realizes she just fell in love with single Santa, but, ho ho NO!  That hasn't been a thing for years.  They still do royalty, but they tweak it quite a bit.  And I am pretty sure I haven't seen a single movie this year about a young woman returning home or stuck in a small town who then meets a kind-of-handsome man in plaid who makes her want to give up her big city dreams (although I've seen men coming to a small town).  And not a baking contest in sight.

In the mid-2010's, Hallmark decided quantities of movies was better than quality of movies.  And that had multiple effects that carry through to today.

1)  The era of FX is done.  That means no more movies where they fly to the North Pole or an elf magically decorates a tree.  So, no more stories with magical beings, because it means less movies if the budget went to CGI Northpoles and extras in elf costumes.  And fewer movies means people tune away faster.

2)  So long, star power.  Which, honestly, is kind of a bummer.  A *huge* draw for me initially was seeing "oh, what's that actress I recognize from that show from 10 years ago doing in this?  What's her deal?"  But it turns out it's way cheaper to go hire a random Canadian actress than get, say, Alicia Witt.  With Canadian local talent, you can make two or three movies, and people will just leave their TV on because they haven't seen that movie yet, but they've seen the Alicia Witt movie and might click away.  

Now, people really follow these movies, and that means that the fans have sort of made these Canadian stars into their own niche type of celebrity.  They follow their favorite Hallmark stars, because of course they do.  Heck, I have a couple.  And Hallmark is always trying new people on to see who is going to land.

And, you can go see these actors at a Con.  Because of course you can.*

Like I say - Over the years, you could guess there were themes handed down from Hallmark central.  "This year we're doing movies about soldiers and/ or veterans", etc...  It was always a trick to spot what the new thing was that year.   I suspect that they  can have, say, Lacey Chabert show up and read five or fifteen scripts with essentially the same premise, pick the one she wants to do, and the rest get handed out to the Hallmark B and C-List stars, and they're going to make the movies, anyway - just with a lower budget.

Themes this year got a little... hard to pin down.  In 2023, I think they ran multiple new ideas.  

1)  Drama.  These movies have always had basically the same source of drama - someone misunderstands someone else, and this leads to a downturn in the blossoming romance, but then they figure out it's a silly miscommunication, and head right back to the absolute certainty these people are absolutely going to end Christmas Eve in the sack.

But not so this year.  This year, they introduced new plots that were - weirdly stressful.  Which is not exactly why I thought these movies existed.  Characters were legit stressed out, not Hallmark stressed out - where they would just talk through the issue at hand while having coffee with a pal and walking down a picturesque street.  Now it's people mad at parents, not sure who their parents are, and I think I saw two movies where the house construction wasn't done for Christmas.  

Look, Hallmark, I don't need reality butting in.  Don't get cute now.  I want to have these movies on as wallpaper at worst and entertainment I can forget about fifteen minutes later as my best scenario.  I do not want to deal with generational trauma or people dealing with the stuff I'm avoiding by watching your sorta-pretty-people handing each other coffee.

2)  International travel.  Uh, look.  This was mostly Americans going to Europe and exploring their European roots, which is something Americans think they should do, but, honestly - we shouldn't.  Nothing sucks more than a 10th generation American deciding they need to talk about how "German" they are or whatever.  You're from Cleveland, it's fine.

And, look, I'm not sure in 2023 that what you need to be doing is getting people really excited about and romanticizing their European heritage.  Like - there's a name for that, Hallmark.

That said, it's wild to see Lacey Chabert and Scott Wolf in Ireland doubling for Scotland, claiming a Duke-dom.  Amazing.  No notes.

3)   Why not a mystery?  Well, Hallmark has been defying Lifetime's belief that all people want is stories of domestic situations gone bad and traded that for low-stakes "cozy mysteries" for years.  Now their Christmas movies and mystery movies met under the mistletoe and had a baby.  A kind of bland, boring baby. 

Look, I get that they have a whole channel called "Hallmark Mysteries".  I guess it was inevitable someone would decide we'd need to crack the case of the reindeer ornament or whatever, but this is putting a hat on a hat.   

A few years back something shifted down Hallmark way.  And it kind of needed to.  Audiences were noticing these movies were maybe a little too lily-white, which is just not how America works, so the movies began to feel... weird.  Why *not* cast more people of more diverse backgrounds?  And not just as background characters in the inevitable Christmas Eve singalong sequence that wraps the movie?

I'd say Hallmark has stepped up their game.  As always, it's imperfect.  But it's not the WASPy world it was back in 2017.  There are movies branded "Mahogany" made by and for Black audiences (Mahogany is also a card line from Hallmark).  Queer characters get larger parts and are not just coded and a component of the Big City lifestyle that must be abandoned.  There are Hanukkah movies.  I will now stop listing non-straight, White things one can be, but Hallmark has found diversity, and the creeping feeling maybe you're supporting White Nationalism by watching these movies is reduced a bit. 

The move to diversify, however, was not going to work for the former head of Hallmark programming and former Hallmark darling Candace Cameron Bure, who is not as insane as her brother, but who went to start her own TV network just so she could keep making movies just about straight, white people.  Which is absolutely telling on yourself, but ok.  

So, Bure is now at Great American Family, a network I cannot get at my house and have not missed.  But she also landed several of her fellow Hallmark darlings, from Chad Michael Murray to Danica McKellar.  So that's where they went.

Some stuff we noticed this year:
  • The international movies were kind of odd, with the movies filmed in Europe but starring people of the wrong nationality as the people from that country.  Irish people as both Scottish and Norwegian people.  Just... make an Irish movie.
  • They kept casting people literally decades too young for the roles they were playing.  It was *weird*.
  • The male talent is now almost exclusively from a very small Hallmark stable, and I have several questions about why I have no facial recognition with any of these guys, learning they've been in 10 of these that I've seen when I look at IMDB
  • I saw like one thing baked all year, and it was in Norway
  • The writing is trying to be quirky, and I'm not sure the directors and editors have caught up.  It feels almost like the actors have gone off script sometimes or an idea isn't landing because the film just doesn't want to deal with, like "oh, isn't this weird ornament funny?" and we keep going back to it, and... it's not funny? 

I couldn't tell you which movies Jamie and I have watched so far - it's a blur.  I've probably seen...  at least 12 or 15 in part, and that included probably 7 from start to finish.  We watched 
  • the oddly snowless Norwegian movie
  • the one where Lacey Chabert goes to Ireland Scotland
  • a movie where Kimberley Sustad wears an elephant necklace
  • one where Lacey Chabert lives in the worst neighborhood imaginable where one is forced to love Christmas
  • One where Autumn Reeser keeps coming back to a tree lot, thirsty for the tree guy
  • One where some dumb kid goes off in a boat on the ocean by himself at night on Christmas and kind of ruins the day for everyone
  • And a bunch I've already forgotten 
  • And many, many parts of movies 
Anyway, it's a transitional phase.  I don't blame Hallmark for trying new things.  Incremental novelty is going to be the thing that keeps people coming back.  

I know it's probably a little mysterious as to why I'm back watching these movies.  Again.  But at this point I'm just watching to see, year-over-year, what they're going to do next.  I guess on some level I enjoy also having something on in which I have no real investment and nothing is asked of me as a viewer, which is what I think a lot of people watch reality TV for.  And it's a sort of cultural study at this point. 

Part of me will also admit - at the end of the year, I just don't want to deal with, and do not have time for, anything super serious.  Which is why I resent very important Oscar movies getting dumped in December.  I have neither time nor inclination.  But, sure, I'll watch some would-be country music star discover found family in a town with a name like "Festive Corners" or whatever.  That sounds about like what I've got mental bandwidth for til January 2nd.
I don't really have access to Lifetime or other channels doing this type of movie, so y'all will need to report in if there's anything to discuss.

*if Hallmark comes across this post and wants to sponsor my trip to 2024 ChristmasCon for some in-depth coverage, I am in

No comments: