Picture this: a single mom who makes just enough at her local restaurant gig to provide a half-decent Christmas for her and her son. There’s her attractive next-door neighbour with impossibly white teeth who also happens to be a bit of a grinch. He not only gives her son a hard time when he plays outside their building but demands their condo board remove the Christmas tree out front for being an “obnoxious” hazard. Needless to say, as the holidays draw near and the two repeatedly bump into each other, they discover they’re soulmates. Naturally. And they do it all against a snowy, suburban backdrop, featuring everything from a sprawling and romantic skating rink to a popular local diner. All that’s missing is a gazebo.
If any of those narrative elements sound familiar, then you’ve probably watched one if not ten Hallmark holiday movies. But perhaps what’s most familiar is not the near-identical characters or well-worn enemies-to-lovers plot but the filming locations, which more often than not are flurry-friendly small Canadian towns. They also tend to be directed, produced, written by, and starring Canadians. For instance, that plot above, about the single mom and the grinchy neighbour? That’s the story of Noel Next Door, the movie leading Hallmark’s annual slate of holiday movies. It’s directed by Maxwell McGuire, who shot the movie in his hometown of Ottawa. This year alone, sixteen Christmas movies were shot in Ottawa (where the tourism office has a map of Hallmark destinations), marking a local record. In other words, one of the most successful networks on television today may be selling American family values, but the movies wouldn’t be what they are without their quintessentially Canadian settings, crews, and creatives.
In 2022, seventy-three original Hallmark films were shot in Canada (about half of them Christmas themed), as well as two new original series, Ride and The Way Home, and the returning series When Calls the Heart. In addition, over 95 percent of the company’s stable of directors are Canadian. Just over half of holiday productions are shot in Canada, and go-to shooting locations range from Kelowna, British Columbia, to Selkirk, Manitoba. Ironically, the Hallmark network isn’t available in Canada, but Countdown to Christmas (its annual holiday movie franchise) is picked up by specialty channel W Network each year, lest we miss out on the corny festivities.
Jesse Prupas, senior vice president of scripted content at the Montreal-based production company Muse Entertainment, is producing two movies for Hallmark this year, which often take him and his team to Victoria and Ottawa.
There are many advantages, he says, including affordable shooting locations and a proximity to good transport networks with international links. In other words, “we can fly someone from Ottawa to Toronto and then on to Los Angeles relatively easily.” And, he adds, several of these Canadian settings tend to offer an “ideal romantic” backdrop. Emilia King, assistant professor at Ontario Tech University and co-founder of Pink Moon Studio, says the country’s “diverse landscapes,” some of which feature mild weather, make it a shoo-in for Hallmark’s specific brand of stories. “Foreign productions here can get urban cityscapes, rolling prairies, forests, mountains, charming small towns,” she says. “You name the vibe and we have it.”
For McGuire, getting to open the holiday season is no small deal. He’s directed three other holiday movies before—two for Lifetime and one for Netflix—and has The Most Colorful Time of the Year (in which a colourblind elementary school teacher falls in love with an optometrist who “brings colour into his life” just in time for Christmas) in this year’s holiday rotation along with Noel Next Door.
“At one point, TV movies might have been a kiss of death for your career, but it’s not like that in our industry anymore,” he says. “If I can develop skills that I can take forward to a quirky indie or a thriller, these are all things that are going to help me in the future.”
That shift in perspective may be because Hallmark has only grown in viewership, but with the rise of streaming, all digital content is television in a sense. The divide between television and film has narrowed, elevating Hallmark’s tried and true content.
McGuire describes Hallmark’s space in Canada as “a star ecosystem,” with several Canadian romantic leads, like Noel Next Door’s Corey Sevier and Natalie Hall. Some become Hallmark regulars, like Luke Macfarlane, who has starred in fourteen holiday films on the network. His Hallmark credits led to his co-starring role in this year’s feature Bros (which includes a few tongue-in-cheek shoutouts to his Hallmark gigs).
“It’s an opportunity to get on screen and be seen,” says McGuire. “If you shine, we all see it, and then you move up the call sheet. We’ve had people that were ‘the other guy’ or ‘the wrong guy’ who gets dumped and are now leading.”
Roughly eighty to 100 people are hired to work on a Canadian set for a Hallmark production, which is typically a fourteen- to sixteen-day shoot. The relatively short running times help ensure lower budgets, which tend to range from $1 million to $2 million per movie.
M. K. Morris, who has worked with Hallmark as everything from a set decorator to a producer’s assistant to a story editor and writer (and has a popular web series and live show called High Hallmark, in which she and other comedians get high and . . . watch Hallmark), doesn’t necessarily think Hallmark launches careers but says “it can certainly sustain them.” She notes the movies do provide lead roles for women who’ve “aged out” of big parts outside of Hallmark and bit roles for comedic actors (think the quirky best friend, the weird co-worker, the over-the-top boss). Considering how many Hallmark productions there are each year, she adds, “that’s a heck of a lot of work.”
In many cases, several Canadian production companies operate via an acquisition model with Hallmark. The network offers up a loose assignment, the production company puts together a story and shooting concept, and they go back and forth until a movie manifests.
According to Prupas, Canada has become a well-oiled Hallmark conveyor belt, one that includes studios, post-facilities, costume houses, skillful and experienced crews, hotels, and specialty equipment rentals. It’s a one-stop shop.
“There [aren’t] very many other countries that are as competitive as what Canada offers on an economic global level,” says Prupas. And, in turn, he says, Hallmark pays well and quickly, making for quite a beneficial relationship.
Hallmark is one of the rare networks to maintain and grow viewership. Most primetime series lose viewers by the year, but not Countdown to Christmas. Annually, around 50 million viewers watch at least part of one of their holiday movies, and their key demographic has remained women between the ages of twenty-five and fifty-four. The network is almost always in first or second place when it comes to winter ratings. And it pulls in big money: Christmas programming accounts for one-third of the company’s annual ad revenue, according to AdWeek. In one year, they can earn about $390 million (US) from ads, not including licensing or streaming revenue. Keeping the bottom line in mind, the most compelling reasons to shoot in Canada are the generous exchange rate and bountiful tax credits. That means Hallmark is able to spend considerably less for a festive location with an existing filmmaking infrastructure available for use.
Hallmark’s holiday movie strategy has proven so consistently successful that Netflix and Lifetime have begun borrowing from the network’s playbook, quickly churning out seasonal films of their own, though with a little more star power (think The Princess Switch, with Vanessa Hudgens, or the recent Falling for Christmas starring Lindsay Lohan). While Netflix’s seasonal crop tends to opt for a naturally bigger budget and has included filming locations largely outside Canada, Lifetime often shoots in British Columbia.
Despite their local teams and sets, Hallmark movies can’t be called “Canadian,” according to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), because the copyright is not Canadian. Instead, Hallmark productions fall under the service production industry in Canada, which refers to movies and television filmed in Canada by foreign producers who hire Canadian crews. This can include caterers, food stylists, make-up artists, equipment providers and handlers, and prop masters.
As Morris says, “We are fake America.”
One defining feature of the country that’s managed to slowly seep into Hallmark’s brand is diversity. Through much of its existence, which has largely been defined by a watered-down, conservative, “family values” approach, there’s been little in the way of colour. The company has found itself in hot water more than a few times by neglecting to feature racialized, queer, or trans people as lead characters. And, if they are hired, they’re often limited to the “best friend” role.
Vancouver’s Cardi Wong, who is Chinese, says he’s “lost count” of how many Hallmark projects he’s been a part of. But he sometimes feels like the “other” on set and often loses lead roles to white actors. “I’ve had so many people come up to me, telling me how much they enjoy my contributions to their films, and yet, I’m still not quite the person they reach out to,” says Wong. “What’s the difference between me and the leads they get?”
In 2020, Hallmark featured a same-sex couple prominently in a holiday movie for the first time. Two years before, in 2018, three of its twenty-one holiday originals became the first to feature leads of colour. Many Canadians of colour have benefited from these opportunities, including Toronto author Sonya Singh, who has written the network’s first Indian holiday film.
Nathan Witte, a Calgary-born, Vancouver-based actor who is Black, has been in thirteen Hallmark movies, but it wasn’t until 2020’s My Best Friend’s Bouquet that he got to play the lead. “Interracial couples were forbidden only until recently and this information was disclosed to casting privately; beards had been something never to be seen on one of their movie sets. But when they cast me as a lead with my beard, I knew changes were happening.”
“There will always be notes,” says Morris. “But there are production companies that are willing to nudge the envelope, if not push it. It also depends on how much you personally want to fight for. To be successful and to get things made, you need to play ball and take the notes; it’s balancing that with your own sense of integrity.”
While they may not be expressly Canadian, Hallmark movies have likely led many Americans to believe it’s always Christmas in Canada. Or we’re very cold but ceaselessly kind. (We’ll allow it.)
“We’re selling Christmas and good feelings,” says McGuire. Hallmark wants its characters to fall in love and be together. “It’s not that we don’t want conflict, we just want to make sure it’s over milk and cookies instead of over life and death.”