Crack­ing the Christ­mas code

Hall­mark churns out sea­sonal TV movies like their char­ac­ters bake cook­ies — 37 new ones this year. The movies have paint-by-num­ber plots, no overt con­flict and, of­ten, Canada stand­ing in for small-town Amer­ica. Katie Daubs ex­plains how the sim­ple for­mula

Toronto Star - - INSIGHT -

AHall­mark 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 be- tween 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 with12 movies. Ev­ery year since 2011, it has topped

the pre­vi­ous year’s to­tal. Which brings us to this year.

There are 37 orig­i­nal Christ­mas movies premier­ing on Crown Me­dia’s Hall­mark Chan­nel and Hall­mark Movies & Mys­ter­ies in 2018.

Daniel Thomp­son and his friends, who live in South Carolina, re­view ev­ery film for their pod­cast Deck the Hall­mark. One of the guys loves the movies, one is on the fence, but Thomp­son is not a fan. Each night when his chil­dren are nes­tled in bed, the high school prin­ci­pal be­gins his lonely work in the liv­ing room.

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 an 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.

Al­though 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 high­pow­ered 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 the12 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, searc­hand-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.”

“You take the same stuff you do in a reg­u­lar movie and you Christ­mas the crap out of it.” WRITER-DI­REC­TOR RON OLIVER ON THE SE­CRET TO MAK­ING HALL­MARK MOVIES

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 “red­state 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 mul­ti­year 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 Ev

er­last­ing 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 Let

terkenny, 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 has15 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.”

KAI­LEY SCHWERMANN CROWN ME­DIA

SHANE MAHOOD CROWN ME­DIA

In Pride, Prej­u­dice and Mistle­toe, Lacey Chabert stars as a fi­nan­cial ad­viser who re­turns home for the hol­i­days and quickly re­con­nects with her high school neme­sis. The film was shot in north­ern On­tario.

STEVEN ACKERMAN CROWN ME­DIA

Can­dace Cameron Bure, a sta­ple of Hall­mark Christ­mas movies, stars in Shoe Ad­dict’s Christ­mas this year, play­ing a depart­ment store worker whose life lacks ful­fill­ment.

In the pod­cast Deck the Hall­mark, three friends from South Carolina re­view each of this year's 37 Hall­mark Christ­mas movies. From left, Bran­don Gray is the most en­thu­si­as­tic sup­porter, Daniel Pan­dolph is on the fence and Daniel Thomp­son is the thumbs-down.

RON OLIVER

Ron Oliver, who was born in Barrie, has writ­ten or di­rected 10 Hall­mark Christ­mas movies.

BRIAN DOU­GLAS CROWN ME­DIA

In Christ­mas Ever­last­ing, Tatyana Ali stars as Lucy, a woman who re­turns to her home­town af­ter the death of her beloved sis­ter. Be­cause of a clause in the will, Lucy stays through the hol­i­days and re­unites with her high school love.

DANIEL HABER CROWN ME­DIA

Jer­rika Hinton stars in Ma­jes­tic Christ­mas as Nell, a woman who helps pre­serve the lo­cal Ma­jes­tic Theatre, work­ing with the man who wants to turn it into a mul­ti­plex.

WILL KEOWN

BOBBY CHAU­MONT

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