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Twas two months before Christmas. A cynical, career-driven city girl meets a sweet small-town boy. Despite some bumps in the road, the two fall madly, deeply in love, all just in time for Christmas. It’s a tale destined to be told and retold over the festive period every single year until the end of time.
Sometimes the small-town boy is a charming, white-toothed prince. Sometimes he’s a single dad who regains his Christmas spirit. Other times, two polar opposite people wake up in each other’s bodies and are forced to learn a festive lesson before the sun rises on Christmas morning. While some of the ingredients might be switched around, the finished product is always the same: a cosy Christmas movie.
Hallmark has reigned supreme over the syrupy festive film for 20 years. But from 2020, it’s going to face stiff competition to win the war on Christmas trash TV as streaming service Netflix slowly encroaches on its space. As the battle to win Christmas television intensifies, Netflix is ramping up production, and it’s not going to stop.
It all began in 2017 with the surprise hit A Christmas Prince. It didn’t stray from the Christmas movie prototype, chronicling a predictably topsy-turvy romance between a prince and an aspiring journalist, and it already has two follow-up films taking us through a royal wedding and a royal baby. “In 2017, Netflix was pretty pleasantly surprised by the response to A Christmas Prince, which probably went much more mainstream than they ever expected,” says Rebecca McGrath, a senior media analyst at research firm Mintel. “I think they realised there was an audience to tap into there.”
The number of Christmas films Netflix produces has increased from just three in 2017 to at least seven in 2020, with three Netflix Originals (including A Christmas Prince) spawning second and third sequels. The Princess Switch: Switched Again and The Christmas Chronicles: Part 2, were both new additions to the Netflix Original Christmas universe this year. And that’s not even including the Christmas-related TV dramas, reality TV shows and documentaries released on the platform this season, like the adaptation of the Christmas novel Dash & Lily, and Holiday Home Makeover with Mr. Christmas.
Last year, A Christmas Prince: The Royal Baby was the ninth most-watched movie on Netflix via streaming aggregator Reelgood during its opening weekend, while The Knight Before Christmas starring Vanessa Hudgens jumped to fourth place in its first full weekend. Holidate, which released in late October 2020, was consistently in Netflix’s top ten most popular movies in the US throughout November.
Audiences love naff Christmas movies precisely because they’re uncomplicated folly. “Because they are so formulaic, they’re not challenging in any way and so are an escape from the other 11 months of the year when we’re all focused on growing ourselves,” says Adam Galpin, a media psychologist at the University of Salford. “Watching a Christmas movie is a familiar type of experience and people love that.”
Although Netflix’s current catalogue of Christmas originals doesn’t match up to the 40 new holiday titles on Hallmark this year, nor Lifetime’s 34, Tom Nunan, a lecturer at the UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television and a former network television president says that ad-supported niche holiday channels “should be terrified”. “Lifetime, Hallmark and Freeform are now competing directly with Netflix,” he says. “For these cable networks, this was their last island of protected content. Everything else had been picked over by network and premium, and even that’s being subsumed by Netflix.” Neither Netflix or Hallmark replied to requests for comment for this story.
The numbers speak for themselves. TV Christmas movies bring in millions of viewers for networks such as Hallmark and Lifetime every single year. In 2019, an estimated 50 million people tuned in to watch a Christmas movie on Hallmark by the time the seasonal event ended. Hallmark’s Christmas movies this year regularly receive two to three million viewers each, with its Christmas fare ranking among the most viewed content across every US channel when segmented by week.
But films on Netflix may have a key advantage: they can appeal to wider audiences because they are not limited by age restrictions on their content. Holidate can get away with cherries being thrown into a woman’s cleavage and implied handjobs, with added moaning for emphasis, while films on Hallmark are slapped with a PG-13 rating and the only action characters get is a chaste kiss in the final ten minutes of the movie. Hallmark is family-friendly, whereas Netflix has unfettered freedom to be everything for everyone.
At a glance, Netflix’s strategy almost looks identical to Hallmark and Lifetime’s. Hallmark famously films in Vancouver in Canada, and so did Netflix. While Lifetime has Melissa Joan Hart, who has been in countless Christmas movies – a mind-boggling three on Lifetime this year alone – Netflix has The Vampire Diaries’ Kat Graham and Vanessa Hudgens, who is appearing in her third holiday film on the streaming service in 2020.
However, Hallmark Christmas movies are produced on a shoestring budget, costing around $2 million to make each. While it’s unclear how much Netflix spends on its Christmas content, IMDB estimates that it costs around $10 million, a figure that pales in comparison to say, two episodes of Stranger Things in its first season, which cost $12 million to produce. “Just judging by the titles, the cast and sampling some of their fare, I would wager that the business model is nearly identical to what Hallmark lifetime and Freeform are paying,” Nunan says.
In recent years, Hallmark has come under heavy criticism for being very white and very heteronormative, something the channel has worked hard to change. This year, it released The Family House, a movie featuring its first gay couple. Netflix, however, heavily promoted The Holiday Calendar in 2018, a film about a photographer who inherits an antique Advent calendar that predicts her future, starring a mostly black cast. This year, it has the musical movie Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, a film about a toymaker who regains his hope after his granddaughter appears on his doorstep.
Despite being frequently lampooned by critics, Christmas movies are here to stay, and the snow-covered movie landscape is only going to get more competitive. “Christmas movies are a universally attractive piece of content that will draw viewers to any streaming service,” says Nunan. “Netflix is showing its hand very clearly, and it’s going to dedicate real resources, time and effort and marketing to owning this piece of the content pie.”
Alex Lee is a writer for WIRED. He tweets from @1AlexL
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