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Best of 2014: Inside Hallmark's holiday TV movie factory

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Christmas Under Wraps

Considering Hallmark Channel’s annual “Countdown to Christmas” programming begins on Halloween, it should come as no surprise that Christmas is on the mind of Michelle Vicary, executive vice president of programming and network publicity for Hallmark and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, all year round. “We right now are in development and some stages of pre-production and finalizing scripts for 2015,” she says. “We like to get real snow as often as we can, but yes, there will be some movies that’ll be shot in the summer and people will be shivering in 80 degree weather with the fake snow.”

This year’s 12 original holiday movies have reached 56 million unduplicated viewers and made Hallmark the most-watched cable network among households and women 25-54 for seven weekends. Here’s a peek behind the curtain.

Click here for more of EW.com’s Best of 2014 coverage.

THE CONCEPTS

Hallmark shows Christmas-themed movies 24/7—and also does originals for other holidays throughout the year—which prompts one question: How do they keep from repeating themselves? “You have to say, ‘If we love this, is there something else that we can twist and turn, tweak it enough so that we’re not doing the same thing as we did in a prior movie?'” Vicary says. “A lot of our movies are about relationships and emotional connections, and I think the good news is that the brand has a pretty wide range of emotional experiences—as long as the emotional experience is one that’s satisfying and enriching, and people walk away from the movie feeling something better or different than they did when they came in.”

For instance: “One of those relationships is with your pets,” she says. That’s the inspiration for 2014’s The Christmas Shepherd, which stars Teri Polo as a widow whose late husband’s dog ends up with a single father and his daughter, and The Nine Lives of Christmas, in which Brandon Routh plays a commitment-phobic firefighter who reluctantly adopts a cat and falls in love with a veterinary student.

You can also never go wrong with a variation on that popular rom-com trope that finds a workaholic city girl somehow winding up in the country. See: 2014’s Christmas Under Wraps, starring Candace Cameron Bure as a third year surgery resident who misses out on a fellowship and accepts a head doctor position in Garland, Alaska. Its premiere was the most-watched telecast in Hallmark’s history, scoring a 5.0 household rating and averaging 5.7 million total viewers.

“Since I live in Los Angeles, I love that wish-fulfillment,” Vicary says with a laugh. “The device may be similar in that it’s somebody who is driven and somebody who’s at a specific point in their life and think they have achieved something only to have that taken away from them, but then what is their unique journey that takes them back to another level of understanding about themselves? We all have our own little twists in our own life story, and those are the kinds of differences and subtleties that we look for to make it personal—not only to that character, but then also to the people who are watching.”

THE CASTING

In addition to the obvious chemistry between the two leads, “You’re looking for actors who are going to portray the role in such a way that you’re going to want to root for them,” Vicary says. Keeping with the Hallmark brand’s legacy, “we look for those actors who people have emotional connections to, and so many of these actors have been iconic television stars over the years and people have relationships with them,” she adds. “And so we like to take advantage of that relationship and express it in a new way in one of our Christmas movies.”

In addition to Bure, Vicary cites Northern Exposure‘s Rob Morrow starring as a guardian angel in Debbie Macomber’s Mr. Miracle, and Saved by the Bell‘s Tiffani Thiessen appearing alongside Cougar Town‘s Josh Hopkins (and Robert Wagner and Jill St. John as Santa and Mrs. Claus) in Northpole. The latter film, which has been seen by more than 15 million viewers over its multiple airings this holiday season, is a partnership with Hallmark Cards, and has a confirmed sequel set to star Full House‘s Lori Loughlin—another network favorite—and to welcome back Trophy Wife‘s Bailee Madison as the elf Clementine.

The network also likes to keep a balance and bring new faces into the Hallmark family to reach a different audience. In The Christmas Parade, 90210‘s AnnaLynne McCord plays a TV entertainment reporter who wrecks a small town judge’s Christmas display and is sentenced to 25 hours of community service, helping an earnest local artist and some kids save their art center by building a float. “AnnaLynne is an example of somebody who’s very popular, and she was very appealing in her audition for the role,” Vicary says. “We thought that she would be terrific and she was.”

THE SCHEDULE

If you’re a viewer who’s lost a full Saturday to Hallmark’s lineup, you’re not alone. “The thing about the holiday season for us is that we hear over and over again that people flip the television on and they keep it on Hallmark and watch Christmas movies all evening long or all afternoon long,” Vicary says. “We have so many number one stories on Saturdays and Sundays with our original premieres, and then also our total day numbers.”

There is a method to the madness: “The beauty of cable is that you can strategically schedule these movies in different spots so that you’re able to reach the viewer who loves to watch one on Saturday morning and doesn’t really have the opportunity in prime time on Friday nights to watch because they’re busy doing something else. You can hit those prime time spots and then you can also repeat them for viewers who are watching at other times of the day.”

Repeats are also strategic in another way: “Our fans tell us which ones they want to watch over and over again, and they do it with the ratings,” she says. “I mean, there’s one, [2006]’s The Christmas Card, and we run that in really key positions throughout our schedule because it is one of our top-rated movies consistently year after year. You see which ones become fan favorites through the ratings, and then also through social media. On Christmas, we give a gift of the fan favorites based on what people love to see again and also what they’ve loved over this new season. So that’s actually a pretty easy part of our job.”

Check out the schedule for the remaining days in December here (through Dec. 21), here (Dec. 22-Dec. 28), and here (Dec. 29-Dec. 31).