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.”
While holiday movies have long been reliable box-office staples — “Home Alone” was the top-grossing domestic movie of 1990 — and there are several new theatrical releases this season, recent years have seen an explosion of fresh content on cable and streaming services. 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.
How is it even possible that there’s room for so many movies from a single genre? Are we reaching peak Christmas?
“No matter what the state of the economy, no matter what the state of chaos or stability, there is an extraordinary appetite for simple, cheesy, unsophisticated, easy-to-watch programming,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “And all the better if it’s wrapped up in the bunting and ribbons of Christmas.”
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), but past holiday originals have been playing to stellar ratings on Friday nights throughout the year. In 2018, the Hallmark Channel was the most-watched cable network for the entire fourth quarter among the key demographics of women 18 to 49 and 25 to 54, and outperformed broadcast networks on Saturday nights among all households during the Countdown to Christmas.
“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 follow the same romance formula — often an overworked woman finds herself in a quaint, Christmas-loving town that also happens to be home to an eligible bachelor — but that consistency is considered an asset.
“They are purposely slightly predictable,” Meghan Hooper, senior vice president of original movies, coproductions and acquisitions at Lifetime Networks, said. “I think viewers know that the couple’s going to end up together in the end. You’re going to be satisfied after spending two hours of your time, and hopefully, you’re getting exactly what you came for.”
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 like 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, New Jersey, featuring a nostalgia-inducing roster of cable Christmas stars including Melissa Joan Hart, Lacey Chabert and Holly Robinson Peete.
“It’s become something even bigger than a programming phenomenon,” Vicary said. “It’s become a lifestyle. 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 on-screen diversity, something Vicary said the channel was “catching up” on and prioritizing. Lifetime and Netflix have outpaced it: roughly half of their new holiday movies feature a romantic lead of color.
“It’s really important to us that the movies we’re doing reflect the world that we actually live in,” Hooper of Lifetime said.
Both cable brands are also adding Hanukkah-related movies this year, Hallmark with “Double Holiday” and “Holiday Date,” and Lifetime with “Mistletoe & Menorahs.”
Theatrical holiday releases haven’t proliferated the way TV titles have, presumably because they take up valuable real estate on a studio’s much smaller slate and because they cost more. “Last Christmas,” one of several new titles vying at the box office this season, was made for $30 million, about 10 times the budget of the average Hallmark movie.
The rom-com, loosely inspired by the Wham! song, pairs Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding underneath the twinkling Christmas lights of London. “The general feeling that I’m picking up from people I talk to is one of just, ‘Oh, thank God, one of these movies that just looks nice and sweet and emotional,’ ” the director, Paul Feig, said. “And I really do feel that we’ll represent that for people. It’s fun to hope that you are going to add something to the Christmas canon.”
Also due in theaters this season: the indie romances “A New Christmas” and “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” and Blumhouse’s slasher “Black Christmas” remake, in which sorority girls are stalked before heading home for the holidays.
So, has the Christmas movie phenomenon been pushed as far as it can go? Not quite — at least not on cable. With 232 Countdown to Christmas movies already produced and a reported 85 million-plus viewers last year, Hallmark’s ratings are soaring. As are Lifetime’s: The channel recorded its strongest month of growth in more than 17 years last December.
Vicary said Hallmark, which is already working on its 2020 productions, 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.”
Thompson, the pop culture expert, said the movies were a win for the channels even should viewership wane. “When we do reach a certain saturation point, when it doesn’t make economic sense to keep making these things in the double digits every season,” Thompson said, “they’re going to have the inventory to offer a service that does nothing but Christmas.”
Although Hooper at Lifetime acknowledged that the idea of an all-Christmas spinoff platform had come up, she said it was not something currently under consideration. “But if you had asked me eight years ago if we’d be premiering Christmas movies in October,” she added, “I think I would have been surprised, as well.”
Some movies that stand out
There are literally dozens of new seasonal movies to watch from your sofa. These titles stand out from the pack.
‘Radio Christmas’ Lifetime, Nov. 9
After her Philadelphia radio station closes for repairs during the holidays, a D.J. (Keshia Knight Pulliam) must broadcast from festive Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where she works to solve a local mystery — and meets a handsome divorcé (Michael Xavier) and his matchmaking daughter.
‘Write Before Christmas’ Hallmark Channel, Nov. 17
Dumped by her boyfriend, Jessica (Torrey DeVitto) decides to send Christmas cards to the most important people in her life — including her brother in the armed forces and a former boy-band member — and unexpectedly affects each recipient in a major way. Chad Michael Murray co-stars.
‘The Knight Before Christmas’ Netflix, Nov. 21
Vanessa Hudgens is back in her second Netflix holiday movie, following “The Princess Switch” from 2018. This time she’s starring in a “Kate & Leopold”-esque tale of a medieval knight (Josh Whitehouse) who is magically transported to the present day and connects with a jaded science teacher (Hudgens).
‘Christmas Town’ Hallmark Channel, Dec. 1
Candace Cameron Bure has starred in the highest-rated Hallmark Christmas movie for the last four years, so it’s a safe bet this one will be a hit with fans, too. Here, Bure’s Lauren leaves Boston for a new life, but an unexpected stopover in a tiny Christmas-obsessed village will make her rethink everything.
‘Ghosting: The Spirit of Christmas’ Freeform, Dec. 4
Jess (Aisha Dee) goes on a perfect first date, only to “ghost” the guy when she dies in a car accident on her way home. With the help of her best friend (Kimiko Glenn), she must learn to ascend to the afterlife in this more-fun-than-it-sounds dark comedy that counts Lisa Kudrow among the executive producers.