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The lasting appeal of Hallmark’s holiday movie formula

How did these cheesy flicks earn a permanent spot in Christmas culture?

<p>For better or worse, Hallmark holiday movies have undeniably ingrained themselves into American Christmas culture.&nbsp;</p>

For better or worse, Hallmark holiday movies have undeniably ingrained themselves into American Christmas culture. 

For better or worse, Hallmark holiday movies have undeniably ingrained themselves into American Christmas culture. Whether they’re the subject of sarcastic, grinchy comments or the object of hot chocolate-filled binge-a-thons, these cheesy flicks make an appearance in just about everyone’s holiday season. But their obvious shallowness and predictability leave many of us — even fans — questioning why they are so ubiquitous.

The Hallmark greeting card company began producing movies and shows back in 1951. But it wasn’t until Bill Abbott took over as C.E.O. in 2009 and wanted to maximally embody the greeting card brand on television that the Hallmark Channel began focusing on Christmas. Since then, Hallmark has turned its Christmas programming into a well-oiled machine, regularly shooting movies in just two weeks and modeling them all after similar plots, sets, and characters designed to feel like movie versions of Hallmark Christmas cards.

This efficient design has created the key to the pervasiveness of Hallmark's Christmas movies at this time of year, the aspect for which they are also most frequently mocked — their formulaic nature. For many, the holiday season is accompanied by a variety of stressors ranging from finals to present shopping to marathon cooking to relatives visiting. All of this chaos leaves us looking for an easy, comforting escape, and Hallmark’s extensive collection of holiday films are happy to oblige.

A major factor in Hallmark’s Christmas appeal is its reliably predictable plots. All of its films start with a variation of the same strong, cute, cookie-cutter female protagonist who meets a variation of the same hunky love interest through some inciting incident. The rest of the film follows the protagonist and love interest spending more time together and falling gradually in love until they finally share a Christmas kiss near the film’s end. 

There is always a central conflict but never an emotionally demanding or complex problem. In combination with their dependably happy endings, this lack of true conflict makes Hallmark movies overwhelmingly cheerful, surface-level flicks with no real emotional investment required. By maintaining this straightforward, consistent formula, Hallmark gives stressed holiday viewers a guaranteed and much-needed boost of serotonin without ever asking them to pay much attention.

Not only can viewers relax with a surprise-free, serotonin-inducing plot structure, but the unrealistic nature of this canned formula — usually accompanied by equally unrealistic festive settings and people — also enables holiday-themed escapism. Hallmark movies are there to ease those of us worn down by relatives and in desperate need of distraction back into the holiday spirit by giving us a break from the stress of the season.

While the consistent lack of realism may prevent these movies from having any deep meaning, it also ensures their lasting popularity by allowing viewers to know and expect any given Hallmark movie to be uncomplicatedly unrealistic. Viewers continually tune in, sometimes even grudgingly, with perfect confidence that Hallmark will provide a safe space for festive escapism.

Even Christmas lovers who aren’t stressed during the holiday season still rely on Hallmark movies. These viewers turn to the films for different reasons, such as the sure-fire Christmas cheer in their amply decorated settings and sleigh bell-filled soundtracks. No matter the type of viewer, the appeal of Hallmark holiday movies lies in their consistency. By keeping every aspect of its films — down to the lead actors — comfortably and dependably familiar, the channel maintains popularity year after year in much the same way your favorite holiday film merits a yearly rewatch.

But it should be noted that while longstanding familiarity is mostly the point of these movies, that doesn’t excuse them from needing a revamp. Even in 2021, Hallmark movies still almost universally center on well-off, white, heterosexual couples. Hallmark has recently begun to make some moves toward inclusivity — like prominently featuring a same-sex couple for the first time ever in 2020's "Christmas House." 

Even so, Hallmark still has a long way to go in expanding the diversity of the people, identities, experiences and even holidays that it represents. After all, if the continued appeal of Hallmark holiday movies rests on their comforting familiarity, their contents should be familiar to as many people as possible.

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