Why Do Hallmark Holiday Movies Have a Cult Following?
Holiday entertainment is a time-honored tradition. From The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol to Muppets Christmas and Bad Santa, the most wonderful time of year has historically produced some of Western culture’s most enduring media. And in recent years, corporate holiday campaigns have joined the cherished holiday canon. Look no further than Starbucks, where new holiday cups cause a maelstrom online every year. Or Shark Week on Discovery Channel, the 7-day programming block that has become a personality trait for its most ardent fans. And of course, no seasonal item has received the amount of both ire and adulation as the Pumpkin Spice Latte. Dedicated online Holiday fandom has turned marketing ploys into full-blown global conversations and in a lot of cases celebratory events. One of the most talked about and anticipated holiday movie events of the last ten years has been the Hallmark Christmas Movie marathon.
You’d be forgiven if you didn’t know that the winter holiday season started this year on Friday, October 23. That’s when the Hallmark Channel kicked off their famous annual holiday programming. Countdown to Christmas is a non-stop movie marathon that promises more than 1,000 hours of made for TV holiday content. According to Business Insider, in 2019 the programming block had 1.7 million overall viewers during primetime hours between December 16-22. For a point of reference, that is more viewers than CNN had in the same time slot.
The Rise of Hallmark Channel Movies
The term Hallmark movie is synonymous with a very specific type of film. The concept of a Hallmark movie didn’t exist prior to 2001. Before that, Hallmark was known as a purveyor of kitschy cards found in your local grocery store and their eponymous little tchotchke shops nestled in strip malls across the country. Then in 2001 someone presumably said “You know the wholesome vibe we imbue in all our greeting cards? What if we made an entire channel filled with that feeling?” Thus Hallmark, the premium cable channel, was developed.
In its current iteration, the channel has three distinct offerings, Hallmark Channel General, Movies and Mysteries, and Movies Now. But if that’s not enough they also have Hallmark Publishing. And for this special time of year, they have Hallmark Branded Wine, a Countdown to Christmas Recipe Book, A Countdown to Christmas Checklist App, and in case 1000+ hours of movies still aren’t enough, they have a Hallmark Home and Family Christmas Corner Youtube channel. In the past 19 years, the channel has grown to define the Hallmark brand. And that definition is bright, happy, clean and well-intentioned.
What is it about Hallmark movies that makes them the ideal tonic for the holidays? For a decade now a growing number of viewers return to these straightforward love stories with predictable narrative arcs. Everything is perfect in the made-for-TV Christmas Movie Cinematic Universe. Bakers, politicians, innkeepers, athletes, florists, Santa’s daughter, ghosts, royalty, etc.—everyone has a chance at love. The snow is always pristinely white (fake snow made of soap bubbles or discarded Styrofoam crumbs).
Hallmark Movies: Perfection and Predictability
The particular style of perfection these movies achieve is the unsettling kind. Like the episode of SpongeBob where the titular sponge strives so hard for normalcy that his porous and angular body transforms, becoming totally edgeless and devoid of texture. At SpongeBob’s most “normal” he’s a completely flawless smooth yellow ball, inoffensive yet deeply unnatural. And therein lies the rub. The reason we as a society like Hallmark movies is because of the slightly unnerving lack of realism. The brand-new sweaters fresh from the wardrobe department, the actors with mouths full of gleaming white veneers, and the mom who continues to flip perfectly cooked pancakes on a stove that’s obviously not turned on, all of it brushes against the uncanny valley constantly reminding the viewers that this a just a movie and none of it is real. Hallmark doesn’t seek to create an immersive film experience, at no moment do you forget that you’re at home on your couch watching a budget movie on premium cable. Nonetheless, the Hallmark movies function as peak escapism.
Made-for-TV Christmas Movies
Predictability is comfortable, it’s why we return to our favorite movies time and time again. There’s no anxiety about the outcome. You can flow along with the story without worrying that the narrative will unexpectedly turn left or anything will pop out and surprise you. Even if the movie is a new release, you feel like you’ve seen it before. There is reassurance in the well-trodden path of a romantic comedy. The only questions are “How will the evil brunette try to ruin everything?” Or “Exactly what idea planted in act one will come back in act three?” But ultimately each tale is just the same version of…the couple meets, there is an obvious attraction but an obstacle, somehow they overcome the obstacle and stay together. The plot continues with yet another obstacle that almost tears them apart, but they overcome that obstacle as well. Finally, they are together in the end sealing the deal with a chaste kiss. Rinse and repeat.
The Hallmark Movie Tradition That Just Keeps Giving
Every year, new movies are added to the Christmas classics canon. What the viewers get is a product, approximately 2 hours of schmaltzy sanitized family fun wrapped neatly in acceptability and Dick Van Dyke style values. It’s sweet candy and mindless entertainment but for the sake of our collective mental health, we should keep it that way. During the whiplash-inducing holiday season, we deserve some earnest inoffensive entertainment. We want media that doesn’t make us think but just lets us feel. And what we want to feel is joy and love and optimism for mankind and for the future. Whether any of those feelings are tethered to reality is entirely irrelevant.