Yes, it’s the most wonderful time of the year again, according to the Hallmark calendar.
A week before Halloween, the Crown Media company has scheduled 41 new Christmas-themed movies as part of their annual “Countdown to Christmas.” Many will have been shot in Canada, including “You, Me and the Christmas Trees,” airing tonight on W Network in Canada and Hallmark in the US.
Shot on location in Victoria, BC, the film stars Danica McKellar — one of the reigning “Hallmark Queens” — as an evergreen expert from Connecticut who helps this fellow named Jack (Canadian Benjamin Ayres from Suits). It seems a mysterious illness has befallen his precious firs. Before you can say “meet cute” the two find love among the branches, rescuing his family’s 100-year-old tree farm.
The film, which also stars McKellar’s former Wonder Years co-star Jason Hervey, was directed by David Winning. The Calgary native is Hallmark’s go-to guy when it comes to making these feel-good films. Winning has shot 43 features and counting, half of those for Hallmark. He’s worked often with other Hallmark favourites including Lacey Chabert, the former Party of Five star. And he does these films with a full Canadian crew.
Many are shot in BC but also in Sudbury and North Bay, Ont., as well as in and around Hamilton. As an American network executive once told me, to find the all-American man or woman, cast a Canadian.
These films are cranked out on a 14- or 15-day schedule and often in May, June and July. This forces crews to roll out cotten batten snow and hang wreathes and candy canes to create a holiday atmosphere.
I remember attending one location shoot in Hamilton years ago shot through a June heatwave. The leads were dressed in heavy wool coats, scarves and mittens while the gaffers and camera crew stood around in bathing suits and T-shirts.
Winning has told me that even when he gets to do a winter shoot, in February or March in Calgary, unseasonally balmy weather has melted all the snow. Trucks have been quickly dispatched to local hockey rinks to scrape up enough shavings to dump around the heroine-of-the-week’s bookstore or cabin in the woods. Crews routinely raid B.C. fishing docks for shaved ice to make summer Christmas shoots look more wintery, while frosty breathing is sometimes added later in editing for the same reason.
Besides Ayres, other Canadians often appearing Hallmark films include Paul Campbell, Colin Ferguson (a veteran of 10 Hallmark movies), Brendan Penny, Luke McFarlane, Cameron Mathison and Jennifer Finnigan. Besides McKellar and Chabert, frequent American leads include Erin Krakow, Candice Cameron Burke, Holly Robinson Peete, Jodi Sweetin, Kellie Martin, Kellie Pickler and Rachael Leigh Cook.
A Hallmark feature can draw around four million viewers in the US — a hit on any broadcast network these days. They have also vaulted W Network into the top specialty channel ranks in Canada. Why are these movies so popular?
“In dark times, Hallmark does an excellent job of offering a safe harbour for viewers,” Winning says. Wrapping it all in the nostalgia of Christmases past doesn’t hurt. There’s no hint of COVID or climate change or, heaven forbid, racial strife in these films.
In recent years, Hallmark Channel has tilted more towards diversity in casting and storytelling, especially under the leadership of CEO Wonya Lucas. The African American executive took over that role in 2020 after the former boss stepped down in the wake of the controversial handling of a same-sex ad.
While it’s still largely a “White” Christmas at Hallmark, Saturday does bring “Boyfriends of Christmas Past,” with Kim’s Convenience star Paul Sun-Hyung Lee among the main stars. This one’s about a marketing executive named Lauren (Catherine Haena Kim) who is visited by four ex-boyfriends, aka the ghosts of Christmas past. Raymond Ablack (the new Netflix series Maid) also stars.