December 26, 2021
Some Lessons from Hallmark Christmas Movies
Over the past few months, family illness occasioned some marathon sessions of Hallmark movie watching. Since October, their programming has been an endless stream of Christmas movies, often casting the same actors in more or less contemporary movies.
Hallmark audiences know what they want and reward the channel with massive viewership. It is the No. 1-rated channel this year, with 24 million viewers. Almost one in 10 adults tune into to at least one of these Christmas movies. To put this in context, fewer than 3.5 million American viewers tune into the top-rated Fox News and MSNBC shows combined. From these data it would seem that the Hallmark Channel has a better idea of what Americans think is important than the two largest TV news companies combined.
The storylines are hauntingly familiar. There’s plenty of winks to Jane Austen themes. There are secret princes visiting quaint New England lodges. Many involve someone returning from a successful career over the holidays to help settle family matters, such as the sale of a family business. There are high school friends on a chance meeting over the holidays, and best friends oblivious to the love they feel towards one another. The Hallmark movies have characters wrestling with a career and life in a place they love. And, there is the familiar challenges of people torn by love and duty.
These movies remind me of Shakespeare’s response when he was criticized for reworking the story of Tristan and Isolde into his Romeo and Juliet. The quote may be apocryphal, but he claimed, “Nothing good is new, and nothing new is good.” So, if you are looking for irony, edgy art films or suspense, Hallmark is not your destination. That is not a criticism of the channel.
If you are looking for something that is relaxing, happy and possessed of its own pretty scenes and people, the Hallmark movies are just fine. But then again, no one reads this column for my aesthetic commentary or film criticism. I think about the economic issues embedded into these stories—I’m a romantic that way. I can report that there are a lot of economic ideas packed into these Hallmark movies.
Women dominate the Hallmark target audience demographic, but millennials and Gen Xers are the majority of viewers. The movies have ethnically diverse casts, a wide range of family structures and characters in same-sex relationships. This doesn’t happen just through the enthusiasm of staff script writers. There is a great deal of background marketing research involving almost every aspect of these movies. They are carefully targeted at people who aren’t only comfortable with this but would find a world without them implausible.
One common element of these stories are strong, independent women. It doesn’t really matter whether these women are protagonists or minor characters; there is a self-sufficiency about all of them. These movies are full of Elizabeth Bennet types, no matter their occupation or the storyline. Again, this is no accident or quirk of the writers. There just isn’t much interest in following a character with little agency over her own life, whether she is a successful attorney or hotel maid.
What strikes me about almost every movie is how the concept of home matters to these characters. Home is sometimes a small town, but more often it is a house, farm, workplace, or simply a neighborhood. Home is a natural Christmas theme, and the characters spend considerable time focusing on the emotions surrounding their homes. Still, across these movies there is no common definition of home.
Many of the characters return home from what is obviously a big-city job elsewhere. However, large urban places are not depicted maliciously. Clearly the writers care about viewers in the Bronx or South Philadelphia as much as they do about audiences in small-town Iowa.
This reminds me of what I often write about in this column; Americans increasingly make their family’s location decisions based upon quality of life rather than a specific job. Economic research bears this out, so it is interesting to see that Hallmark’s marketing department also detects this interest in their focus groups and surveys.
There’s also an effort to depict home in geographically diverse places. One of the movies was set in Madison, Indiana. The movie wasn’t actually filmed there, and I believe they failed to capture the charm of Madison. Still, there is a clear effort to have broad geographic representation of locations. The movies are set in Cincinnati suburbs, Atlanta, Nashville, Memphis, and in small towns in Vermont, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, Utah and California. This is simply a business decision by Hallmark, but it reflects the geographic breadth of interest in place.
There is also care given to respect work across all its domains. There are many lawyers, but there are also veterinarians, designers, party planners, florists, reporters, bakers, waitresses, maids, bankers, stay-at-home moms, retired soldiers, cops and teachers. Career difficulties are a common theme, but people are depicted as individuals, with value that is independent of their career choices or success.
In a nutshell, Hallmark respects its viewers no matter where they live, what level of education they have or what profession they’ve chosen. This was once a common sentiment, and we would be better off it were again.
A love of home, connection to community and visible strength in character are widely attractive to viewers. You don’t have to take my word for it; these movies are popular with advertisers and the product placements are legendary. To be sure, these movies are overly sweet. They don’t show anyone selling drugs or getting drunk. There are no gun fights or sex scenes. No character is irredeemable, and the ending can always be predicted. The movies can be criticized for too few minority actors as lead characters, but that is sure to change. Also, they have yet to deal with COVID (too soon, perhaps) and the movies carefully avoid national politics. That may not change.
Hallmark Christmas movies capture a contemporary longing for home and community. The audience is large, growing and loyal. The economic lesson of Hallmark is that commercial success can come from delivering simple sentiments directly, without pretense or embarrassment. Hallmark has figured out that large numbers of Americans care about home, community and individual character. In our turbulent times, I can think of few more hopeful holiday messages.
About the Author
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