What it's really like to write made-for-TV Hallmark Christmas movies
Don’t deny it, you’ve seen plenty Hallmark holiday movies. Heck, you’ve watched so many at this point that the plots and characters are as muddled together in your mind as a string of tangled Christmas tree lights — but that might not be entirely your fault.
As far as movies go, the Hallmark Christmas offerings are pretty light fare, and they’re fully intended to be. Watching them should be as comforting and smooth as a cup of eggnog, with nothing jumping out to jar your viewing experience. Yes, they pretty much all follow a tight festive formula that sees a girl return to her hometown where it snows incessantly (but in a pretty way that doesn’t require plowing or heavy clothing) and where the essence of the holiday season imbues every last soul, activity, and setting. Conflicts are easily overcome, old flames are rekindled, and cookies are eaten.
With Hallmark cranking out a massive 37 new festive flicks this year, the network’s Christmas workshop shows little sign of slowing down any time soon. But what really goes into creating one of these jolly tales of Yuletide wonderment? We asked two Hallmark movie writers to share the inside scoop on their experience. They asked to remain anonymous so we’ve named them “Merry” and “Christmas” for the purposes of this story.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So how does the process start? Do you pitch Hallmark an idea and then write it if they’re interested?
MERRY: Basically, we go through production companies. There are three we’re working with right now and we pitch them and they decide what they think Hallmark is going to buy, so they develop it. They make 10-15 movies for Hallmark a year so they know what they’re after.
Were you fans before you got involved?
CHRISTMAS: No, we never even knew the audience until we started writing them because we had never watched them. We talked to people and they loved them, and we were like, “wow, we had no idea.” We had to immerse ourselves in the world because it is its own thing and if you don’t master what it is, you have no shot of getting them on the air because there’s so many rules. It’s like trying to write under water with handcuffs. It’s helpful in that you don’t have that many choices. The blank piece of paper isn’t so blank. Now the production companies are starting to move into the Hallmark competitors, like Netflix and stuff, who are looking for similar stories, but maybe with slightly laxer rules. You can have somebody get drunk in a Netflix movie, but not a Hallmark movie.
Okay, let’s talk about the rules because I’m sure there are so many! What can you tell us about the Hallmark regulations that ensure a harmonious Christmas for all?
MERRY: The first rule is snow. We really wanted to do one where the basic conflict was a fear that there will not be snow on Christmas. We were told you cannot do that, there must be snow. They can’t be waiting for the snow, there has to be snow. You cannot threaten them with no snow. Our idea for Christmas in Miami? Never. Not in a million years. At least not at this point in the way they approach these movies. They’re very, very, very specific about what they want to see.
CHRISTMAS: They always like Christmas activities like gingerbread-making contests, snowman-making contests. They like to have that stuff scattered throughout the whole thing, so there’s always some sort of Christmas element going on.
MERRY: We have one script that’s about to go over there, they’ve signed off on it, and one of their big notes — and this is a movie where people are basically doing Christmas activities in every scene — was there wasn’t enough Christmas!
CHRISTMAS: The wedding movies on Hallmark are the same; you can’t have enough wedding things! It’s the same kind of thing where they just overload it with whatever the seasonal thing is. They like to hit you over the head with the seasonal club.
MERRY: Right, there cannot be a single scene that does not acknowledge the theme. Well, maybe a scene, but you can’t have a single act that doesn’t acknowledge it and there are nine of them, so there’s lots of opportunities for Christmas. They have a really rigid nine-act structure that makes writing them a lot of fun because it’s almost like an exercise. You know where you have to get to: People have to be kissing for the first time, probably in some sort of a Christmas setting, probably with snow falling from the sky, probably with a small crowd watching. You have to start with two people who, for whatever reason, don’t like each other and you’re just maneuvering through those nine acts to get them to that kiss in the snow.
CHRISTMAS: They can’t not like each other too much. One of the problems of writing a Hallmark is that you cannot have too much conflict, but somebody has to be angry and they hate…
MERRY: No! They dislike. You’re not allowed to use the word hate or the word crazy in Hallmark. Everything goes through a mildness filter. You have to mild-ify everything that you do just to kind of take all the edges off. It’s like everything gets sanded, filed down so the sharp edges come off. “Off-brand” is the word they use for anything that doesn’t fit, like if you use the word “stupid” or “crazy” or if someone is too mean or sexual, all those things are off-brand.
CHRISTMAS: Any sexual is too sexual.
MERRY: Anything that someone might find jarring that would shake up their little world of gingerbread and snow.
CHRISTMAS: I’ve said it’s like writing a movie in the ’40s, but then I look at a movie from the ‘40s and it’s edgier, so it’s not like writing a movie in the ’40s. They don’t want anything to offend anyone. It’s comfort food and I guess a lot of people like that nothing is going to rattle them. No cannibalism, no brutal murders, nothing like that.
Right, and never anything nothing beyond a chaste kiss.
CHRISTMAS: Yes, and only at the very end.
MERRY: But there is the almost-kiss. You’ll have at least one almost-kiss, where something happens to prevent it. Somebody slips while ice skating is a popular almost-kiss opportunity or decorating the tree and whoops I’m reaching for the same branch you are, our faces are millimeters apart, we can feel each other’s breath…but then something will happen to make sure the kiss does not.
CHRISTMAS: The bad boyfriend will enter or the bad girlfriend or whoever is in the way of them getting together to create the love triangle. They’re just the wrong guy, but they could never be bad; they’re just not right. You know how we’ve all had that boyfriend that was a great guy just not the right guy for us? Well, he’s in every Hallmark movie.
But it still all works out in the end…
MERRY: Of course! If they ever had a Hallmark movie where things didn’t work out in the end, I don’t know what would happen. I think there’d be mass riots.
What about personality traits for the characters? What do you have to include?
CHRISTMAS: The woman basically has to be a saint, but she still has to be a take-charge kind of female until she basically submits to the guy at the end. She needs to have a dream that is not fulfilled and she has to figure out how to fulfill this dream over the course of the movie and, generally, the proper love interest has to do something to help her realize her dream or teach her a lesson about how to achieve that dream and the importance of it. Or, they show her that something else is really what she wants, that the thing she thinks she wants isn’t what she really wants — like when women want to go to the big city and be successful, often the big city is the enemy.
MERRY: It’s almost like a mad lib: What’s-her-name has to a have a meet cute with what’s-his-name and blah blah blah from there. We’ll always write the initial descriptions as “cute girl” and “nice guy.”
Diversity isn’t Hallmark’s strong suit either…
MERRY: On our end, we just write everybody as white, we don’t even bother to fight that war. If they want to put someone of color in there, that would be wonderful, but we don’t have control of that.
CHRISTMAS: This year we have heard that they have commissioned a couple of Hanukkah movies for next year which is interesting because once we used a character named Sid and we were told the name was too ethnic.
MERRY: Normally there’ll be a black character that’s like a friend or a boss, usually someone benevolent because you don’t want your one person of color to not be positive — well, everyone’s positive in Hallmark land. You get the feeling that since they’re getting so huge now and since there’s suddenly all this competition that they may start to relax. I found out Meghan Markle had been in some and she’s biracial, but it almost seems like they’ve tightened those restrictions more recently. Everything’s just such a white, white, white, white world. It’s a white Christmas after all — with the snow and the people.
CHRISTMAS: They’re also shot in Canada, which is very white.
MERRY: Netflix will have a gay character and a little bit more diversity than Hallmark does.
So once you submit your script do they come back with heavy edits?
CHRISTMAS: Yeah. On our first couple, because we didn’t know what we were doing quite yet, Hallmark gave us really extensive notes, but it was just because we didn’t totally understand the structure. The production company, which have been beaten up over the years by Hallmark, will preemptively flag things and give you notes on the scripts before they get to Hallmark.
So is writing one of these a long process or is it fairly short?
CHRISTMAS: Oh, it’s fast for us. The writing is the fun part. We have an idea and it maybe takes us a week or so just to break it down into a treatment, a synopsis of the story; it’s like a beat sheet where you pretty much write what’s going to happen in every scene, you just don’t write the scene. If we have a solid beat sheet done and it’s approved, then it’s only going to take us about a week and a half to finish a draft. Basically, an act or two a day and there’s nine. They’re kind of simple because there are so many rules so you know what you can and can’t do, and if you have everything worked out it comes together. Every act you know where you’re starting and where you have to connect, so it’s just a question of plugging your characters into various adorable Christmas scenarios and watching the sparks fly.
MERRY: We get everyone into their proper locations and sort of set up their conversations, then it’s basically just all about massaging the dialogue and developing the characters and trying to make them as unique and interesting as they can be within the confines of Hallmark land.
Is there any dialogue they ask you to include?
MERRY: Not specifically, but there was one time when we were working on one and we decided to watch a Hallmark movie and we heard, like, three of our lines in that movie because you end up writing the same things. I mean, they don’t tell you to use this language or this line or anything, but it’s just a natural consequence of how tight the form is.
CHRISTMAS: It’s more, I think, things that people need to see, rather than things that people need to hear. Especially at Christmas, they need to see Christmas sh— going down; they need to see that ice skating, that big tree. Also, they need to see that news reporter in that very opening scene talking about whatever is going on in Christmas town that Christmas year.
MERRY: We saw two Christmas ones in a row that had almost the exact same opening: Ice skating, the Christmas tree, and then a reporter reporting on something about Christmas. It’s hilarious.
So is there a pool of writers Hallmark uses over and over?
MERRY: Oh, yes. That is our dream. That’s all we want for Christmas. We want to crack the inner circle of the go-to Hallmark writers because we’re still on the periphery.
As a writer, what’s the appeal in working on these?
CHRISTMAS: We love to do it and it’s relatively easy for us to do it. When we have the time, we can crank them out pretty quickly.
Now I know the formula, I kind of want to give it a go…
MERRY: Do it! All you have to do is diagram it. You watch and write down every beat that happens in every act and then you just go through it and go, “This is the model, this is the map,” and then you just hit all those beats and go to Hallmark.