Let's make a Christmas TV movie! (...Or not?)
Every fall, as the leaves turn brilliant then dull, and T-shirt time yields to sweater weather, we retreat indoors to watch the sackloads of Christmas TV movies that the networks and streamers start stuffing down our chimneys. (140-plus this year!) As we witness every variation on a snowstorm stranding, pretend boyfriend, and gingerbread competition, one thought always dances in our heads: Bet we could write one of those.
But could we?
As two EW veterans who've consumed more yuletide movies than is medically advised (and one of us is Jewish!), we set out to create the ideal Christmas flick while learning all the ingredients that make for the perfect holiday dish. We turned our thermostats down to 32 degrees, piled on the scarves, overindulged in some salted caramel pie, and whipped up a 10-page treatment for Lights! Camera! Christmas!, a cinematic-yet-tubular experience brimming with unlikely/forbidden romance, matchmaking kids, hot cocoa, and plenty of mangled mistletoe. We honored the tropes of this Emmy-allergic comfort-food genre while taking several calculated risks. (A male protagonist? In a movie about Christmas movies? That's set in summer?) All we needed now were a few powerful people to believe in the miracle of our Christmas.
We set up a pitch meeting with Lifetime's Tanya Lopez and Sapna Vyas — EVP and VP of scripted content, respectively — who sift through more than 300 yuletide pitches a year and oversee a slate that features 35 new Christmas movies in 2021. We also presented our idea to MadDog Productions president Maura Dunbar; a former ABC and Hallmark Channel programming exec, she has executive-produced 12 Christmas movies, including Hallmark Channel's 2018 film Christmas at Pemberley Manor and this year's Nantucket Noel (which debuted Nov. 19). Will we show this trio a holiday hit in waiting — or will they show us the door? Will their notes be naughty or nice? It's time for action on Lights! Camera! Christmas!
Jaded journalist Trevor Rankin is a rising entertainment reporter at Hollywired magazine. Just as he's ready to jet off to a European film festival, his plans are derailed by his sharp-and-tough editor, Simone, who has tasked him with visiting the set of the new Christmas TV movie Chris Missed Christmas. Trevor protests the assignment, which he considers beneath him — and he has never understood the appeal of Christmas movies — but he's the only available option after the recent retirement of the mag's beloved Christmas-movie reporter Charles Cherington (a.k.a. "Chucky Cheer").
And so Trevor is dispatched in July to Kringleville, Vermont, the Christmas-obsessed town where the movie is filming. He arrives on set and is greeted by jolly security guard Freddie (who's married to town baker Marcus). Watching the reporter arrive with great interest is the film's leading woman, Erika. Her own greatest fan, Erika sees an opportunity here to score a Hollywired cover story on herself and cement her status as a Christmas Movie Queen. She'll stop at nothing to make it happen, with increasingly poor results.
After meeting the film's two adorable kids (Kayla and Kevin) and Trudy the script survivor (who wears oversized glasses), Trevor sits down for a quick interview with the disarmingly friendly director, Jessica Bass, to discuss the movie. (The plot? A widower named Chris is stranded in his car during a snowstorm and can't make it home for Christmas, but he trudges through the woods and stumbles across a kind widow who's living off the grid in a cabin with her young son. Meanwhile, Chris' daughter, also named Chris, stays up all night, Home Alone-style, and then is horrified to learn that she has slept through her favorite holiday because her dad wasn't there to wake her up. Don't worry, the Chrises reunite later that day.) As Trevor and Jessica talk, it becomes clear that Trevor is not a fan of the genre. A Christmas superfan, Jessica explains her love of the holiday and reveals that when she was younger, she was hospitalized after a car accident and was amazed at the generosity of the nurses and doctors who gave up their own Christmas to care for her.
As the two walk back to set after the interview, a set decorator lugging a Christmas tree on his shoulder suddenly wheels around, swinging the tree violently in their direction. Jessica screams, "Look out!" and tackles Trevor out of harm's way, sending them both into a pile of fake snow. They linger on the ground for a beat, looking into each other's eyes before shaking it off. Trevor thanks her from saving him from "death by Christmas tree" and, after seeing her wince as she dusts herself off, asks if she's okay. She pulls a piece of crumpled mistletoe from her pocket, which, as she explains, was given to her to remind her to keep love in her heart. "In preventing death by Christmas tree, I have caused death of mistletoe," she quips. Watching the incident unfold are Kayla and Kevin, who notice sparks between the pair and make it their mission to play matchmakers in real life, just as they do in Chris Missed Christmas.
Over the next few days, a skeptical Trevor observes the filming of Chris Missed Christmas, and sees a group of people who have formed a family of their own, celebrating the Yuletide spirit even though it is summer. Trevor's hardened exterior beings to soften, and he brings Jessica a new piece of lucky mistletoe each day. A deeper bond is formed when Trevor learns that Jessica lost her two sisters in the car crash, and he offers his condolences while sharing that his only sibling died unexpectedly a few years ago.
While Trevor and Jessica don't seem ready to act upon their blossoming love connection, pint-sized cupids Kevin and Kayla try to engineer several magical moments between the two, only to watch them all backfire. For example, they lock the pair in the widower's cabin from Chris Missed Christmas, unaware that Trevor is deeply claustrophobic. They also convince Trevor to bring Jessica a batch of Marcus the baker's peanut butter blossoms, unaware that Jessica is deeply allergic to nuts.
A frustrated Kayla and Kevin stage a comical come-to-Jesus talk with the adults and tell the pair to report to the town's Christmas-themed restaurant, Silent Bite, for dinner. But just before the date, Jessica discovers what appears to be a draft of Trevor's article about the movie, which he blasts as a pandering saccharine assault of blandness masquerading as a film. When Trevor returns and sees the pages strewn across the floor — that was actually an early version of the story he had written and discarded — he realizes what has happened.
After a forlorn night alone at local watering hole The Tinsel Tavern, Trevor attempts to mend fences with Jessica, but he's stopped at the gate by security guard Freddie, who reluctantly explains that he has orders not to allow Trevor on the set. Trevor sees Jessica in the distance and tries to explain, but she storms off and then tells script supervisor Trudy how she shared things about herself she wasn't used to sharing, and thought that Trevor had opened up to her too, but now it seems like it was all a big lie. The screen fades to black. A chyron with the following words:
Five Months Later…
The cast and crew of Chris Missed Christmas have reunited back in Kringleville on Christmas Eve for the world premiere. Jessica is given a copy of Trevor's just-released article and begins to read what she expects to be a scathing review.
As she reads, though, we see the images of the cast and crew laughing, embracing, and being joyful in each other's company as we hear Trevor's voice reciting the words from his story about how he learned that Christmas was not just a day or a place, but a feeling of friends celebrating the good times together and supporting each other through the bad — and while he had let someone special slip away, Christmas had taught him to open his heart and never give up hope.
Jessica is speechless after finishing the article, and is immediately whisked away to the red carpet for interviews, where she spots Trevor clad in a red and green Christmas tuxedo. Jessica teasingly asks him how he got into the event, given that he was persona non grata. "Well, I have friends in high places," he says, nodding over her shoulder, where she turns and sees Freddie with his apron-clad husband Marcus, as well as Kevin and Kayla, all giving the thumbs-up sign. Jessica smiles, reaches into her handbag, and pulls out all the mistletoe that Trevor gave her. She holds them above their heads and the two kiss… which garners huge applause from the nearby cast.
Everyone pours into the theater, while Jessica and Trevor duck out of the event to have that long-awaited first date at Silent Bite. After taking a few steps, they decide at the exact same moment that they can't miss the big premiere and hustle into the theater as a crane shot pulls away from the scene, giving us a bird's eye view of the town, with "Chris Missed Christmas World Premiere" lit up on the marquee.
Our Dream Cast!
Here's who we have in mind to star in the epic holiday extravaganza that is Lights! Camera! Christmas!
Josh Groban as Trevor
The multiplatinum vocalist doesn't just have the pipes, he's got the acting chops to play our grinchy-yet-lovestruck entertainment journalist.
Amber Stevens West as Jessica
With charm to spare, the former Greek star (and Lifetime holiday movie veteran of Christmas Unwrapped) is a perfect pick for the movie's yuletide-obsessed director.
Jameela Jamil as Erika
Jamil would most certainly be in a very good place playing the hilariously self-absorbed Christmas Movie Queen obsessed with landing a Hollywired cover story.
Donna Lynne Champlin as Trudy
We see the underrated Crazy Ex-Girlfriend star sidekicking her way into viewers' hearts as Chris Missed Christmas' bespectacled script supervisor (and Jessica's on-set BFF).
Harvey Guillén as Freddie
With his warmth and comedic charisma, What We Do in the Shadows' Guillén is a jolly good choice to lock down both the set and laughs as the jovial security guard.
Turns out, our perfect Christmas movie is… less than perfect. Among the biggest concerns from our pitch meetings is that a yuletide film written by entertainment reporters about the making of a yuletide film starring an entertainment reporter might be too meta. (Go figure!) "It's inside baseball," explains producer Dunbar. "When we get inside the business too much, we alienate the audience." Seconds Lifetime's Lopez: "It's very insidery, with the movie-inside-the-movie. I don't know if it will work or not, to be completely candid."
Meanwhile, our decision to wait until the very end of the film for the big dramatic kiss (a hallmark of many, well, Hallmark films) turns out to be a ho-ho-horrible idea. "It's a two-kiss movie!" insists Dunbar. "You got to have that first kiss, and then the second kiss!" Lopez also seems comically distraught that romance is not coming early and often: "They can't just wait until the end of the movie to kiss! Who marries someone without kissing them? That is the freakiest thing ever. And every woman's thinking that, too. It's like, 'You know, I'd try it out.'"
We are also dinged for dumping a mountain of coal in viewers' stockings with grim backstories for our main characters. "Debbie Downer, man!" cries Dunbar while shaking her head. "The brother's dying, sisters are dying — Christmas is the ultimate feel-good time of year. Once you have that kind of trauma, you ain't coming back." And fewer sibling ghosts of Christmas past means space for family in the present, which was a notable absence in our pitch. "It felt like a missed opportunity," points out Lifetime's Vyas.
Even where we make a promising choice, problems pop up, such as with our mini-matchmakers, Kayla and Kevin. "I loved your Parent Trap idea of these two kids, but it came out of nowhere," says Lopez. "I don't know what their investment is in her — why they all care. It just felt really forced."
The experts' notes are not always unanimous, though. The panel is split on the radical decision to stage the majority of Lights! Camera! Christmas! not during the holiday season but rather in less-than-wintry July. "I don't think it's a bad idea that you do this in summer, but the reality is we all make these movies [then]" says Dunbar. "So there's gold to be had." While Vyas agrees that there is "something interesting" about leaning into the fun (and reality) of the summer-filming schedule, Lopez worries that it could be "jarring" and "take the magic" out of the holiday the film is celebrating.
Dunbar takes further wind out of our sails by bemoaning our tendency to lean on dialogue as a plot driver, explaining that we're guilty of the dreaded "park and bark." As she notes: "You have a lot of talking. You have to create action where you show and not tell."
When the snowstorm of big-picture issues subsides, a flurry of notes on smaller details begins. We're told that Freddie's husband, Marcus, shouldn't just be a baker; he should specialize in something, such as French pastries or gourmet donuts. (And peanut butter blossoms aren't festive enough.) Oh, and Vyas gently reminds us that the light-hearted scene involving Jessica's nut allergy should be "treated with sensitivity." Adds Lopez: "We don't want to point out differences. We don't want to lean into that at the holidays."
Message received. A lot of them, actually. But after carving up our Christmas film with all the exuberance of a Grinch slicing through Whoville's finest roast beast, these people have left us to wonder: Is there anything they do like about our movie?
While the issues with our script are as plentiful as December snowfall in Colorado, the lights in Lights! Camera! Christmas! are not out yet. Lifetime's execs praise Trevor as a quirky, compelling protagonist on a clear journey of lesson-learning. "We really responded to the fish out of water," says Vyas. "The fact that he's had a transformation to go through, and the way he's going to achieve that transformation through this romantic story, resonates for our audience." (Dunbar even suggests we make Trevor a sportswriter to yank this fish even further out of water.)
The trio are intrigued by our (much-labored-over) decision to go with a male lead (see: Mario Lopez in Lifetime's Feliz NaviDAD), given that the choice flies in the face of conventional wisdom. "The names of the guys who make it a greenlight movie are far fewer than the women," notes Dunbar. While Vyas acknowledges the risk, she sees potential reward: "We are a women's network and support women, but women want to watch men as well. So we have this conversation a lot. There's an opportunity in Trevor."
With his casting, too. Lifetime's execs approve of our suggestion of Josh Groban, the savvy baritone who moonlights in acting. "He taps into an audience that we want to come to our table," says Lopez, while noting that we'd need to find an organic opportunity for him to sing. (One yuletide karaoke session, coming up!)
Trevor's romantic foil, Jessica, also holds promise to them. "It's very empowering to see a female director," says Dunbar. However, all agree that she needs to embark on a more meaningful journey. "While Jessica's had tragedy, it's a backstory moment," says Lopez. "Her big victory is Trevor kinda likes Christmas too, which isn't a huge arc for our female character."
Our experts come out in support of the supporting cast, especially diva actress Erika. "Erika popped out in her Gloria Swanson moment," raves Lopez. "She's got her own movie going on — and she's been in that movie for several years now. I gravitated to her, and that is also about the comedic balance: How far could we push that character? " (She suggests Susan Lucci or Annie Potts for the role, while Dunbar envisions Elaine Hendrix.) Trudy also rates highly, and not just because of her giant glasses. "Her relationship with Jessica is a really important one, if we're not having her family or a best friend," says Vyas, who wants us to flesh out the romance plot for Freddie and Marcus: "We love when there's a couple for a B or C story."
The backdrop of nonstop-Christmas-observing Kringleville seems to draw in our pitch audience, too. "The setting of this quaint town that loves Christmas, this celebration of the spirit of the holiday, also resonated," says Vyas. "The restaurants (Silent Bite, Tinsel Tavern) shed light on making it fun and really stood out to us." They also eat up the title of our movie, which, of course, was never not going to contain the word Christmas. (Alas, they do not find the title of our movie-within-the-movie as tasty. "Chris Missed Christmas is a little tongue twister," laments Dunbar.)
Finally, the climactic moment between Trevor and Jessica at the end of the film also has potential. That said, opinions are divided on a sartorial decision, specifically when reformed scrooge Trevor pops up at Jessica's premiere in a red-and-green suit. Dan thought that adding flashing lights to the tuxedo to jokingly reflect that Trevor had seen the light was a bright idea, while Dalton felt that Trevor should conserve energy and stay classy. Lopez sides with Dan, while Vyas and Dunbar support Dalton. "Every girl wants to be swept away by romance," says Dunbar, "and if a guy shows up in a blinking suit, he's dead."
The moment of truth: Will these industry experts consider making our movie? "This would fall in the middle for me," says Vyas. "There's more to be discussed. There's work to be done." As for Lopez: "I would say if we had a relationship with you, if you'd written another Christmas movie before, if we knew the producers you were with, if you brought talent to it…we would probably take the time and work on the material." Well, that sounds extremely positive — especially when we ignore the 518 uses of the word if.
We're down to our last shot, with producer Dunbar holding the keys to our festive future: "I love so much about this idea." Wait, really?! "I'm always looking for the diamond in the rough. And I think you do have a diamond in the rough. There's something fresh here, but there's some recalibration that needs to happen. I would love to work with you on it."
Behold, a Christmas miracle! This absurd holiday fever dream might actually be coming to a TV near you in 2022. Someone get Groban an ugly sweater! 🎄
Illustration by Jeff Hinchee.