When Bill Nighy sang “Christmas Is All Around” in “Love Actually” 16 years ago, he could have been discussing the state of holiday movies in 2019. Among this year’s nearly 100 new releases, viewers can choose to celebrate “Christmas in Rome,” “Christmas in Montana,” “Christmas in Louisiana,” “Christmas at Dollywood,” “Christmas at Graceland,” “Christmas Under the Stars” or “Christmas at the Plaza.”
It’s probably no surprise that Hallmark channels have increased their annual Christmas movie count by 20% since 2017, but Lifetime has more than quadrupled its output in the past two years and Netflix has doubled its in that same time.
“There is an extraordinary appetite for simple, cheesy, unsophisticated, easy-to-watch programming — and all the better if it’s wrapped up in the bunting and ribbons of Christmas,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York.
By the numbers, Hallmark is TV’s undisputed Christmas king. This year, “Countdown to Christmas,” the brand’s 24/7 holiday programming block, celebrates its 10th anniversary. It officially began in late October and runs through New Year’s Day with 24 new titles on the Hallmark Channel (and 16 more on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries).
In 2018, the Hallmark Channel was the most-watched cable network for the entire fourth quarter among women 18 to 49 and 25 to 54, and outperformed broadcast networks on Saturday nights among all households during the holiday season.
“It’s almost our obligation to give people everything they want and need to celebrate this time of the year,” said Michelle Vicary, executive vice president of programming and publicity for the Hallmark networks.
Lifetime targets a similar audience with the “It’s a Wonderful Lifetime” lineup, which also premiered in late October, runs around the clock and will debut 30 films this year. Both brands’ films often follow the same formula — an overworked woman finds herself in a quaint, Christmas-loving town that also happens to be home to an eligible bachelor.
“You’re going to be satisfied after spending two hours of your time, and hopefully, you’re getting exactly what you came for,” said Meghan Hooper, a senior vice president at Lifetime.
The lesser-known UPtv also aims for comfort with its holiday movies, which this year include the meta “A Christmas Movie Christmas” among 10 premiere titles.
But it’s not enough to just attract viewers. Hallmark and Lifetime have expanded their Christmas empires to offer merchandise such as holiday movie pajamas, wine totes, aprons and sherpa blankets. For Hallmark, there’s also a podcast and movie checklist app — and it’s sponsoring the first-ever Christmas Con, a (sold-out) three-day fan convention in Edison, N.J., featuring a nostalgia-inducing roster of cable Christmas stars including Melissa Joan Hart, Lacey Chabert and Holly Robinson Peete.
“It’s become a lifestyle,” Vicary said. “It’s become, ‘How do I live like I’m in a Hallmark Christmas movie?’ ”
One criticism of the Hallmark Christmas aesthetic has been its lack of onscreen diversity, something Vicary said the channel was “catching up” on. Lifetime and Netflix have outpaced it: Roughly half of their new holiday movies feature a romantic lead of color. Both cable brands are also adding Hanukkah-related movies this year, Hallmark with “Double Holiday” and “Holiday Date,” and Lifetime with “Mistletoe & Menorahs.”
Meanwhile, Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network is debuting its first-ever TV Christmas movies, all three with black leads, while the original movies of Freeform’s 25 Days of Christmas speak specifically to its millennial and Gen Z audience. “Ghosting: The Spirit of Christmas,” for example, includes a same-sex romance — a rarity in cable Christmas movies.
Freeform is just one of the Disney units competing in this space. Anna Kendrick and Bill Hader’s North Pole-set “Noelle” will be part of Disney Plus when that service starts streaming Nov. 12. And for ABC, the studio’s network TV arm, Freeform is producing a new film called “Same Time, Next Christmas,” starring Lea Michele.
Netflix is adding six original Christmas movies to its “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Netflix” catalog, mixing romantic comedies like “Holiday in the Wild” and “A Christmas Prince: The Royal Baby” with family fare like the animated “Klaus.” Though notoriously cagey with numbers, the streaming giant reported Kurt Russell’s 2018 “The Christmas Chronicles” had 20 million views in its first week.
So, has the Christmas movie phenomenon been pushed as far as it can go?
Hallmark is already working on its 2020 productions, and Vicary said it had no intention of backing off anytime soon. “I could be flip and say we’re going to do at least 41 movies next year, but in all honesty, I don’t have the number yet,” she said. “We’re not going backwards, for sure.”