Hallmark Christmas movies occupy the same cultural space that reality shows inhabited at the turn of the 21st century.
They follow a formula. They’re populated by archetypes: Best Friend, Good Girl, Bad Boy, Boy Next Door, Wise Elder. They’re not particularly deep or complicated, but they’re satisfying to watch. Many feature actors who used to star on network shows. They’re easily parodied. They’re garnering huge audiences. They’re multiplying.
Drop the words “Hallmark Christmas movie” into a conversation, and most people can immediately recite the narrative arc: a jaded, big city woman heads to the American heartland and (over the course of a couple wholesome hours punctuated by pratfalls, thwarted romance and Christmas tropes) finds love, a whack of baked goods and the true reason for the season.
For a perfect summation of the Hallmark Christmas movie formula, check out this Saturday Night Live sketch featuring James Franco as “Canadian handsome Chris Bearstick.”
Hallmark Christmas movies — like reality shows before them — are at once a cultural phenomenon, a punch line and a game changer.
And in Vancouver, Hallmark Christmas movies are even more than all of that. They’re an industry unto themselves — a mega-employer of thousands of local actors and crew.
According to production stats provided by Creative B.C., at least 18 of this year’s crop of Hallmark Christmas movies were filmed in Vancouver. That number doesn’t include the dozens of other Hallmark productions that shoot in the Lower Mainland annually, including When Calls the Heart and Garage Sale Mysteries, or Christmas movies produced by Lifetime and UPtv.
Giles Panton knows a few things about Christmas movies. The Vancouver actor worked on five this year alone, including three for Hallmark: A Gingerbread Romance, It’s Christmas, Eve and A Godwink Christmas.
Panton sees a connection between the ugliness in the zeitgeist and the popularity of Hallmark Christmas films.
“I think there are a lot of people who are stressed,” says Panton, who also recurred in the third season of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. “I think the debt-load is very high, and the world feels like a rough place. I think it feels nice to take a holiday from all of that, even if it’s on TV.”
Like Panton, Lisa Durupt is a veteran of multiple Hallmark Christmas movies. This year, the Leo Award-nominated actress (Preggoland) can be seen in Reunited at Christmas, about a frazzled novelist (played by Nikki Deloach) struggling with writer’s block who heads to her grandma’s for the holidays and — spoiler alert — finds creative fuel and the true meaning of Christmas.
“You know what you’re getting when you sit down to watch these films,” says Durupt, who often plays the best friend or the sister. “They’re feel-good movies. Anybody at any age can watch them. You can leave the room to go do something and come back and you won’t need to start over to catch up. Somewhere along the way, they became a tradition, in the same way that Hallmark cards became a tradition.”
Funnily enough, the bulk of Hallmark Christmas movies are filmed in the summer. “They’re constantly kindly yelling at you to play to cold, to make it seem colder than it is,” says Durupt. “You’re sweating buckets trying to look cold.”
Panton shot one of his 2018 Christmas movies while wildfires raged across the province. “It was a wonderful movie, but it was intense in the smoke and heat, wearing my full winter gear,” recalls Panton. “I had a scene where I was pacing around outside talking on the phone, and I was choking on smoke.”
But it’s worth the smoke and sweat, adds Panton. “In all of these films, the town comes together to do something amazing, or someone completely changes their life. Something magical and extra special happens around this time of year.” He sighs. “I love Christmas so much.”
Last month, Hallmark launched its Countdown to Christmas app designed to help audiences keep track of the flurry of movie premieres.
But we can’t imagine the app is nearly as fun as the unofficial Hallmark Christmas movie drinking game that made a splash on social media last year: Take a drink when a “big city” person is transplanted to a small town, take a drink any time you hear “Jingle Bells,” finish your drink when the Christmas cynic is filled with holiday spirit.
It’s the reason for the season.