Holiday TV Movies: The Busiest Genre You May Have Overlooked
2016 is on its way out but there’s still time for you to research a busy and often overlooked genre: Holiday TV movies.
While there are those who would scoff at the idea of deliberately striving to work in the world of TV movies, that just means there’s also fewer competitors in this market – and it’s a robust one. While Warner Brothers and Universal each released about 20 new films in 2016 – 19 and 22, respectively – there are 19 new holiday TV movies premiering this year. And that’s just on the Hallmark Channel! When you add the offerings from Lifetime, UP, and Freeform/ABC Family, you can see just how formidable this genre is. At a time when the spec feature market is sluggish and theatres are full of sequels, remakes, and adaptations, the holiday TV movie market is able to bring some much needed cheer to both writers and viewers.
Before you start looking up contact info for Sedona Entertainment, Inc. or Johnson Production Group on IMDB Pro, let’s consider what distinguishes a holiday TV movie from holiday scripts in general. For starters, this market can afford to be robust because the production costs tend to be on the low side. This means that large ensembles and splashy special effects aren’t necessarily going to help you make a sale. Scenes tend to be dialogue heavy and run a little long when compared with films, reducing the number needed to fill the 90 minutes. And no matter how expansive a castle appears from the outside, there’s usually only eight or nine rooms contained within (though there’s always a ballroom).
However, just because financial concerns may limit the number of your scenes and locations, that doesn’t mean they limit the amount of holiday cheer they convey. In fact, the locations for holiday TV movies appear to be chosen for maximum seasonal sparkle. This is one place where department stores, castles, and even schools are on equal footing. From quaint small towns to the bustling streets of Chicago, as long as a setting can be covered in enough snow and string lights to make viewers reach for their hot chocolate it can work as the locale for a holiday TV movie.
Writers should also bear in mind that these movies are often re-aired for years after their premier. This makes topical concerns such as elections or recent news stories another potential hazard. While crime-related TV movies may be ‘ripped from the headlines,’ holiday TV movies should be as evergreen as the Christmas fir trees they often feature.
Another side effect of the fact holiday movies – both TV and features – have a long shelf life is that aspiring writers will need to research what stories have already been produced. A TV movie that’s ten years old – or older – may be on the schedule right next to the slot your script will be considered for. Thankfully, in the world of television, familiarity is often considered a feature, not a bug. Despite the many movies that use a castle as their setting (“Crown for Christmas,” “A Princess for Christmas,” and “A Royal Christmas,” to name just a few), if a writer can come up with an original story to tell in this setting, they may find there’s still room for more.
If ill tidings are the opposite of glad tidings than ill will is the opposite of the warm spirit of goodwill that often suffuses holiday TV movies. While conflict is the universal driver of story, the character flaws which generate conflicts in this genre tend to reflect a hidebound adherence to tradition or an outsized defense against old wounds rather than spite or malice. This means when lead characters or their antagonists transcend their old ways– and they usually do – every major character can be included in the happy ending.
Finally, the world of holiday TV movies is a world of stories, where audiences are rarely treated solely to the one featured in the main plot. While there usually aren’t extensive B or C plots, viewers are often told tales about holidays past, the origins of unusual family traditions, local lore, and most of all, love stories. How parents met, the moment a widower realized he was in love with his late wife… if it’s a story that fleshes out the warm world of the characters, even seemingly irrelevant anecdotes can play a role in the holiday TV movie experience.
Now that you’re armed with some basic guidelines of the genre, you’re ready to load up your DVR and conduct your own research. Check out www.christmastvschedule.com to see what’s airing soon and don’t forget to enjoy the holidays (purely in the name of research, of course).
Script Analyst / Playwright
Kathleen Cromie is a professional script analyst and playwright. Her plays have been produced in America, the UK, and France (in translation).