How Hallmark Took Over TV — and Not Just at Christmas
It is a blindingly bright, sunny mid-July day. But here in Langley, British Columbia — a blip on the outskirts of Vancouver where Hallmark Movies & Mysteries has temporarily descended to film the holiday rom-com Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen — it's already beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
Thanks to a cadre of Canadian elves, an otherwise unremarkable strip mall has been transformed into a winter wonderland, festooned with wreaths and twinkling lights. Bundled up in cozy sweaters and scarves, the film's stars, Erin Krakow, Kimberley Sustad, and Luke Macfarlane — familiar faces to Hallmark watchers, as well as jewels in the proverbial crown — are doing their best to not overheat between patter-filled scenes. (In this festive romp, premiering November 30, a pair of event-planning sisters are enlisted to throw an office Christmas party for a tightly wound toy company exec. Laughter and love ensue.)
In a quiet corner of the breezeway, I ask Sustad — who debuted on Hallmark Channel in 2012's A Bride for Christmas and has been a fixture ever since — what it's like to be a member of this particular club.
"I'd never realized before that Hallmark was such a big thing, but it didn't take me long to get it," Sustad says. "The audience and reach and scope of what they're doing is massive. I totally drank the Hallmark sauce."
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Suddenly, a crew member comes bounding over to us. "I'm sorry, but I need to ask you to move," he says, gesturing toward a metal contraption. "We've gotta turn on this snow machine right now."
You heard the man: The snow must go on. And that sense of urgency is entirely legitimate, if you consider the mind-boggling number of original movies Hallmark currently has in the pipeline: 98 will air in 2019, with even more planned for 2020. Over the past five years, the cable platform — which includes Hallmark Channel, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, Hallmark Drama, and the streaming service Hallmark Movies Now — has been systematically expanding its slate of holiday offerings into a year-round menu of feel-good fare.
"Our audience wants more, so we're giving them more," says Michelle Vicary, executive vice president of programming and publicity. "It's impossible to say when we're going to hit a number that's too much, but we haven't gotten there yet."
Although Christmas programming remains the juggernaut, attracting around 80 million viewers, the rest of the seasons are getting their due with a surge of content heralding the bounty of autumn, Valentine's Day, spring fever, and beyond.
"I went right from shooting [last August's Hallmark Channel entry] A Summer Romance into prepping for Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen. Suddenly it was Christmas again," says director David Winning.
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On Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, gentle whodunits are evergreen. Twenty miles east of the Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen set, you'll find Jill Wagner and Kristoffer Polaha filming the latest Mystery 101 film (he also stars in November 26's Double Holiday on Hallmark Channel). The crime franchise — she's a college professor, he's a detective, and together they solve murders while generating a crackling, Moonlighting-esque chemistry — aired its third and fourth installments in September.
Wagner says, "I love the Hallmark positivity. Even our bad guys are good. The killers have a heartfelt reason for what they're doing."
Around these parts, it's commonplace to encounter several Hallmark projects shooting simultaneously. Vancouver's diverse terrain has made it a go-to destination, but to avoid repetition, directors must possess a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of the local sights and how they've previously been used in the Hallmark canon.
"The challenge is always finding new places to film that the rabid Hallmark fans haven't seen before, because they notice," Winning says.
Given the sheer volume of the whole operation, keeping costs down is essential: Bloated budgets and extended shoots are verboten. The majority of the 90-minute movies are filmed in just 15 days, an ambitious schedule that doesn't leave room for dillydallying, or divas.
On the Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen set, I witnessed Macfarlane, whose character was supposed to be sampling catering options for his upcoming soiree, gamely choke down one crab cake after another, with barely enough time to swallow between takes. The goal, he joked, was to nail the scene "in 12 crab cakes or less."
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After long, potentially shellfish-laden hours on the job, most Hallmark stars retreat to downtown Vancouver. You won't hear tales of wild late-night antics, but they do patronize the same hotel bar — think Cheers, only with a prettier, perkier crowd — and mingle with past, present, and future castmates.
"It's almost as if Hallmark is returning to the Old Hollywood studio model from the '50s and '60s, where you have a troupe of actors," Sustad says. "I'll look around and think, 'I've played your love interest, your sister, and your killer!'"
Once actors come into the Hallmark fold, they're loath to leave, with good reason: In a notoriously fickle industry, the network has meaty roles — for women of all ages, no less — in constant supply. "They're loyal, they treat us well, and they hire us year after year. It feels like being part of a family," Krakow says. "And the fans are so passionate and engaged."
Oh, and speaking of those fans? You can forget any preconceived notions about an army of kindly elderly ladies. They are indeed watching, but their ranks have been complemented by many fans age 25–54. "Our demos are not that different from the rest of the television viewing audience," Vicary says. "When you're talking about 85 million people watching our combined services last year, that's not a niche."
Unsurprisingly, competitors — like long-standing rival Lifetime and, more recently, Netflix — have been vying for a piece of the action with their own original movies in a similar vein. Thus far, it hasn't threatened Hallmark's No. 1 slot. "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," Wagner says. "But you can't just come along and re-create the trust that people have in this brand."
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As secret sauces go, trustworthiness may not have much sizzle factor, but it's proven remarkably powerful — especially at a time when people are feeling increasingly bombarded by negativity and noise. Viewers are craving reliable, nontoxic escapist entertainment: the chance to wrap a fuzzy blanket around their overwhelmed psyches and relax into the comforting themes of community, romance, and celebration. Maybe even save a fictional Christmas tree farm (or 10) in the process.
So while countless flashier outlets try to plant their flags by pushing boundaries, Hallmark is quietly, steadily cornering a growing share of the market simply by staying true to its wholesome DNA. "What they've tapped into isn't happening anywhere else," Polaha says. "When you think about it, this family-friendly greeting card company is breaking all the rules."
In today's climate, maybe there's nothing more subversive than good, clean fun.