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Made-For-TV Christmas Movies Are Big Business For The Hallmark Channel


On a chilly winter night, two old flames meet again on a train.


DERMOT MULRONEY: (As Tom Langdon) When you left, everything was different. I guess I realized I couldn't change the world after all, at least not alone.

KIMBERLY WILLIAMS-PAISLEY: (As Eleanor Carter) I don't know if we could've changed it together.

MULRONEY: (As Tom Langdon) It sure felt like we could.

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: That was '90s heartthrob Dermot Mulroney playing a former war correspondent with Kimberly Williams-Paisley as his ex in the "Hallmark Hall Of Fame" movie, "The Christmas Train." When it debuted last month on the Hallmark Channel, millions tuned in, beating the four main broadcast networks that night. And full disclosure, I watched it.

In fact, I, like many Americans, have been watching a lot of the Hallmark Channel this season. And joining us now to talk about the successes and controversies around the Hallmark Channel's annual diet of jolly Christmas movies is another fan, our very own Linda Holmes, host of the pop-culture Happy Hour podcast and general culture guru. Heya (ph).

HOLMES: Hi, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you're a fan. How big a fan?

HOLMES: I'm a big fan. This is sort of what I do over Christmas if I am cleaning my apartment or, you know, I'm doing the dishes or whatever. I've got these running in the background. They run most of the day on Hallmark over and over and over again for roughly a month and a half, I think.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK. All right, so a big fan. Run us through the Hallmark movie formula for those who may not have tuned in - snow, Christmas, love, fireplaces.

HOLMES: Right. It's even more specific than that. You'll have, generally, a woman who's unhappy and a man who's unhappy. And then they have to fall in love and become happy. And very often, their meeting involves either some sort of transportation or housing mishap that throws them together or that one of them works for a little small business and the other one works for a big mean conglomerate. And the one's going to take over the other one, but, of course, in the end, they save the small business.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. So I was amazed, personally, at the quality talent in "The Christmas Train." Dermot Mulroney - like, I did not know what had happened to him and now we do. Danny Glover, though, Joan Cusack - she has Oscar nominations. Is this a sign of their stars fading or of Hallmark's rising?

HOLMES: Well, it's a little bit of both. "The Christmas Train" is actually part of "Hallmark Hall Of Fame." And "Hallmark Hall Of Fame" is a series that goes back to the 1950s and used to run on the broadcast networks. And that's always been kind of a higher-end...


HOLMES: ...Thing - marquee thing. They used to do Shakespeare and stuff like that back in the day. The Hallmark movies that run most of the time are a step below that. You won't see as many people that you recognize like Danny Glover. These are the ones that the woman who runs the year-round Christmas hat store and then she meets some guy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) I saw that one.

HOLMES: See? Of course, you did. It's called "Hats Off To Christmas!".

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. I have to say, in anticipation of this conversation, I did a deep dive this season. And there have been many, many Hallmark Movie Channel write-ups this month. And I learned a few things. Most of the films are made in Vancouver. They do about 30 new ones every year for about $2 million each. So they're pretty cheap to make. Many of them shoot in the summer, so their use of snow has to be judicious because of the cost. And they're apparently running out of cute small towns to shoot them in.

HOLMES: Yeah, I believe that. There are a lot of these. There are a lot of them. And they make more, you know, by the year.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: By the year, all right. So as I mentioned, there's been a lot of think pieces. And some people are saying that the popularity now of the Hallmark Christmas movies is escapism, escaping from politics. Others say it's because they are so wholesome, and they're good for the whole family. And there just isn't programming like that elsewhere. Why are so many people tuning in?

HOLMES: Definitely, escapism. But I don't know whether it's necessarily specifically escapism from politics or whether it's just escapism from whatever. I think Christmas programming has always had a lot of kind of light wholesomeness to it in most cases. But it's definitely true that these are palatable to people who like their entertainment very, very culturally conservative, by which I mean these are romances where, at the very end, the people will have a little kiss with their mouths closed. And it is - there is always a sense that everyone has to fall in love and get married to be happy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. You'll not be surprised to learn, I think, that this has now gotten political because the other thing about them is that they are predominantly white people playing these characters. Left-leaning Slate slammed Hallmark this season for, quote, "brimming with white heterosexuals who exclusively, emphatically and endlessly bellow, merry Christmas, to every lumberjack and labradoodle they pass."

Fox responded with its own think piece saying, would Slate be just as indignant about the ethnic casting habits of BET or Univision or the LGBT-friendly Bravo television network and on? So even, apparently, Hallmark has gotten dragged into the culture wars.

HOLMES: Well, as you say, overwhelmingly, they are about white people. And there have been little tiny steps. They made one this year with Alexa PenaVega and her husband Carlos PenaVega. And they were explicitly written in the film as a Latino family. But for the most part, that's not the case. And I think the thing that's funny about that is one of the main demographics they're trying to appeal to - a lot of it, I would generalize is somewhat older religious people. A lot of older religious people are black people and Latino people and all of that. So it's funny to me that they haven't made the decision - hey, you know, we're leaving a lot of money on the table.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what do you like about them? What's your favorite Hallmark movie?

HOLMES: Oh, boy, I'm going to have to go with "The Nine Lives Of Christmas" in which a firefighter finds a cat and then meets a very nice woman who works at a pet store. And then they have a merry Christmas.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, that's good. Merry Christmas. All right, Linda Holmes, host of the pop-culture Happy Hour podcast. Thank you and happy Hallmark watching.

HOLMES: Oh thank you so much, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linda Holmes
Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.