By Lisa Richwine
LOS ANGELES (Reuters)
Pour the eggnog, decorate the tree and turn on the TV
Like glinting tinsel in a sea of dark TV dramas, the number of new, feel-good Christmas movies offered by U.S. cable TV networks and the global streaming service Netflix is off the charts. Among roughly five dozen original offerings this season are “Hometown Christmas,” “Christmas at Graceland,” “My Christmas Inn” and “A Shoe Addict’s Christmas.”
Demand was so high many had to be filmed in summer heat, with fake snow and digital winter effects.
“Everything has blown up. I can’t believe how much Christmas stuff is going on this year and next year,” said Andrew Gernhard, whose company, Synthetic Cinema International, has produced movies for the Hallmark and Lifetime cable channels and others.
These types of films, which promise snow, mistletoe and a love story, used to be largely limited to networks like Hallmark and Lifetime. This year Netflix Inc is releasing three new Christmas romances, Walt Disney Co’s Freeform network is airing three of its own, and the TV One channel has two on its schedule.
For networks, the movies are relatively inexpensive. A typical holiday film costs roughly $1 million to $3 million, far less than the $10 million that networks can spend on a single episode of premium television.
Gernhard believes Christmas movies are popular because they offer an escape from the real world and the guarantee of a happy ending.
“With everything that is bad going on right now, whether it’s war, politics, whatever, Christmas is the time of year that people come together,” he said. Holiday films “give them a little inspiration in life by giving these happy, fun stories.”
Netflix is moving deeper into the Christmas movie business after last year’s “A Christmas Prince,” the story of a young journalist sent abroad to write about a man who is poised to become king. Viewership and social media chatter “wildly exceeded our expectations,” said Ian Bricke, co-head of Netflix’s independent film division.
Bricke said “Christmas Prince” was popular with Netflix subscribers around the world, even in countries where the holiday is not as big as it is in the United States. This year’s Netflix films include a sequel, “The Christmas Prince: A Royal Wedding.”
The season is important to the streaming service because the end of the year typically means peak viewing time. People give televisions or Netflix subscriptions as gifts, and families gather and look for something to watch together.
Christmas films “deliver what the audience wants – a romance, a happy ending – some adversity and conflict, but not a lot,” Bricke said.
TV’s Christmas rush started before Halloween, when the Hallmark Channel kicked off its largest programing slate for the holiday with “Christmas at Pemberley Manor” on Oct. 27.
Subscribers to Netflix watch holiday films all year, Bricke said, suggesting that Christmas is not the main attraction. “It’s romance,” he said. “People love love.”
Filmmakers shoot Christmas movies throughout the year, Gernhard said, partly because the quaint small towns that provide a backdrop are booked with visitors during the real-life holiday season.
“Christmas at Pemberley Manor,” which Gernhard produced, was filmed in Connecticut in June. For summer shoots, actors wear light clothing underneath heavy winter coats, and take frequent breaks to drink water. Camera crews capture tight shots to keep unwanted foliage and flowers out of the background. Any green leaves are brushed out later with digital effects.
Crews also cover the ground with white blankets and use “Ghostbusters“-style backpacks to spray trees and bushes with biodegradable fake snow that is “sort of like shaved paper,” Gernhard said.
The effort pays off with audiences
In 2017, Hallmark Channel’s Christmas-themed lineup made it the most-watched cable network in the fourth quarter among women ages 25 to 54. This year’s “Pemberley Manor” debuted with 3.6 million viewers, ranking as the highest-rated non-sports program on cable that day.
Hallmark is releasing a record 37 Christmas films this season across the Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. Lifetime more than doubled its output this year to 14.
The fervor is keeping people like Gernhard busy.
“I don’t even know if I’m going to decorate my house because I’ve done so much Christmas this year,” he said.
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Frances Kerry)