Diversity, Community, and the Search for Joy: Why Holiday Films are on the Rise

2020 proved that holiday films are higher in demand than ever before. Why is this the case? Michael Lee Simpson interviewed industry experts to get the scoop on why the market is increasing so quickly and how this niche has become more inclusive.
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Now that it’s January, it is the perfect time to reflect on what has now become the biggest splash in the sea of film and TV—the surge of holiday movies blasting through streaming services. Industry insiders touch on specific subjects: What they think is causing the influx, why this market is increasing so quickly, and how this niche has become more inclusive with diverse stories.

jingle jangle

What do you think is causing the influx of holiday movies, and why is this market increasing so quickly?

“With over 80 holiday films released during 2020, the year of a pandemic and halted productions, this year has proven to us not only that holiday movies will and can prevail, but also there is a need for them,” said Leanna Woodley, Second Rounder in Austin Film Festival for original dramedy pilot and whose Christmas romance novel, The Christmas Patisserie, will be coming out early next year. “With the incredible divide our country has shown over the past four years, there is still one thing the majority of us can agree upon, and that is the joy of the holidays. These films have a reputation for being typically light on the drama and filled to the brim with Christmas decor and tropes. But with Hallmark scoring the highest ratings of any network once again with their 40 premier holiday movies this year and Lifetime pulling in closely behind with 30 movies of their own, the proof is in the eggnog.”

“I think it's increasing because holiday movies give us a sense of security,” said Nora Jaenicke of Nostos Screenwriting Retreat. “They bring us back to times when life was simpler and most of them have a happy ending. For a year like this one, which has been such a chaotic and isolating one for most of us, holiday movies can be seen as some sort of exit strategy—a parallel universe where spending time at home is the equivalent of feeling cozy and safe, not threatened and lonely. Both the pandemic and the election have caused severe distress in most households. It seems that right now, people don't want to see films to be reminded of how scary this world is. They want to escape into a better version of the world they are living in at the moment, and it doesn't matter if it's made up. They just want to get away.”

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“I am in production of a holiday-themed made-for-TV movie,” said Jennica Schwartzman, actress, writer, producer, XX Partner of Little Sister Entertainment, and Managing Partner of Purpose Pictures. “We had to cancel a few days out due to COVID in late March, we shut down production altogether. We had rescheduled for December in Nashville and the city shut down again just a few days out before shooting, exactly the same as before. We are attempting again in February because it's a great time to get the work out there since so many have been shut down. Our team here in Hollywood has decided to pivot a few of our scripts to keep our holiday scripts to small bubbles of actors. We're working towards a few years of these kinds of adjustments.”

Actor Luke Matheis (The Last Tycoon, Twisted Sisters, Daisy) said, “I think the increased output of holiday movies in recent years is because of how easy of a sell it is to both viewers and producers as well as how effective Christmas functions as a story backdrop. Even movies that originally came out in the summer such as Die Hard and Batman Returns have been known to be part of holiday movie lineups because they take place at Christmas. It's a time when big gatherings are happening and whole families get together. On a yearly basis growing up, I'd always watch Home Alone and Home Alone 2 on VHS when I was visiting with extended family. A good Christmas or holiday movie is generally reliable for bringing people together.”

home alone

How has the holiday movie industry become more inclusive?

“The holiday movie industry has tried to become more inclusive,” stated Gary Goldman, President of Ficto and producer and director on shows like Shameless, Entourage, Valley of the Boom, and House of Lies. “It still needs to evolve for sure, but here are some classics. Take a look at Rent directed by Chris Columbus. He directed one of the all-time great holiday movies, Home Alone, a decidedly all-white holiday movie. In 2005, Rent takes place during the holiday and is the epitome of diverse. It’s not one to gather the young kids around but it’s a powerful inner-city story of hope and dreams. You can’t talk about diverse holiday movies without talking about Trading Places. How good is Eddie Murphy as the rags to riches to revenge hero in the holiday spirit? That movie is older now, so where is the industry making new diverse holiday movies? Take a look at A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas. With one or two clicks on the web, we can see where the industry is heading.”

“You can find movies representing stories of all kinds,” said Elizabeta Vidovic of Almost Normal Production. “Lifetime putting out its first Asian American Christmas film, Hulu’s movie Run featuring the first disabled actor in a lead, or a first holiday movie about a gay couple. There was a call to action, and it looks like Hollywood has started to answer it. We have all seen more inclusivity this year overall, but especially during this holiday season. While things are definitely looking good, I hope they continue to get better. Our production company, Almost Normal Productions, has always made diversity and inclusion, in front of and behind the camera, our biggest priority. From our female-driven stories to our diverse ethnically and age-blind cast and crew, our female creative/production team is committed to making a positive change in our corner of the industry. My pick for 2020 is Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey. I absolutely loved it!”

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“Christmas is big around the world and comes back every year, it has good international and replay value,” explained Joel Silberman, writer at Good Fear Content, director of the Writers Assistants Network Workshop, and creator of PENdemic with Joel Silberman. “That's a good business to be in. On the tonal side, I think there's a huge audience that's disinterested in or even repulsed by a lot of contemporary scripted content, especially on cable. They don't want to watch big stars in slow stories with desaturated colors about rich people murdering and/or sexually assaulting each other; they'd rather watch smaller stars fall in love and hug each other. And it turns out that audience includes Black, Latino, Asian, and LGBT folks who are even more inclined to tune in if the leads occasionally look like them. Produce it at the right price point and voilà, you're making money. The upshot is actually pretty simple: Give the audience what they want at a price the producers can afford. Which seems like a formula that could be used year-round, not just on Christmas.”

happiest season

“Heartwarming, escapist stories are always welcome during difficult, divisive times,” said Joey Elkins, co-writer of Hallmark’s Unlocking Christmas, also co-written by Blake Silver. "And when so many of us are isolated in real life, we especially gravitate toward the traditional holiday themes of closeness to family and community. It's wonderful progress to see more holiday films with LGBTQ and BIPOC romances at their center. Love and family are universal themes, and everyone deserves to see themselves represented on screen.”

“I think Netflix is smartly competing with Lifetime and Hallmark because they know the audience is there,” explained Tawnya Benavides Bhattacharya, Writer/Co-Executive Producer currently on Apple's Salsa and CEO & Founder of Script Anatomy. “People love a feel-good holiday movie. Hallmark puts out 40 new Christmas movies a year. That's right—YEARLY! And I imagine Lifetime does the same. Both of those networks air their older Christmas movies all week long and then put out the new ones on the weekend. I think we'll see Amazon and Hulu getting into the game, too. Another factor is probably budget. TV movies are not too expensive to make. We're seeing more diverse casting, but also stories that include diverse ethnicities and cultures like Feliz Navidad on Lifetime, Love, Lights, Hanukkah on Hallmark, and, of course, Jingle Jangle on Netflix. Those are just a few. It's delightful to see.” 

On holiday movies…

“My favorite holiday movie is Silent Night, Deadly Night,” said screenwriter and The Death of Francis Stevens author Randy Maizuss. “Although not ranked as the greatest festive movie, this film has two elements that many holiday films lack—controversy and originality. Released in November 1984 from TriStar Pictures, the movie was pulled from theaters within a week; yet the film still grossed more than $2.5 million on a $750,000 budget, which clearly exhibits that people desire controversy or anything that derides convention. Even the promotional poster created an uproar among families, as it featured an image of Santa's gloved hand clutching an ax while descending a chimney. Silent Night, Deadly Night was clearly a product of the ’80s, excess blood and comical premises, but the film offered ingenuity. Over 35 years later, I can still recall the images of Santa smashing a front door with an ax or decapitating a man on a sled. And who could forget the depiction of fake blood being sprayed onto a stack of boxes? God bless the ’80s.”

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Decades of films and TV specials—Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s, classic, good, bad, and everything in between—we have the honor of including the director of one of the most popular comedies of all time contribute to the article. Jeremiah Chechik, director of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, reflects on today’s holiday boom. “I think that the increasing number of holiday films, including traditional, genre-based, diversity-oriented, and just plain Christmas card-like visuals, are directly tied to the increasing number of channels and streaming services. Each wants to get in on the holiday “spirit” (whatever that is). As for me—I thought John Hughes wrote a terrifically funny screenplay about obsession. The need to feel significant in the eyes of one’s family drives a man to nearly destroy that very family. And buried in the comedy is a poignant thread of corporate greed. I had hoped the film would deliver an “American Aesthetic,” Currier and Ives, Norman Rockwell, and the like, but twisted into irony and humor. It's possible that the film has lasted because at its heart is a foundation of emotional realism, exaggerated yes, but fundamental to many, that goes well beyond an American tradition into what a so-called “head of household” means globally. And there also is luck!”

Standup comedian Jeremiah Watkins, whose one-hour standup special called Jeremiah Watkins: Family Reunion is available now on Amazon Prime, reflects on Chechik’s film: “What isn’t there to love about Christmas Vacation?! It’s funny for so many reasons and hits the mark beautifully on so many subgenres of comedy. Cats, dogs, and squirrels, oh my! I miss comedies that weren’t afraid to be super over-the-top and ridiculous. The sledding scene where he shoots off like a rocket is a perfect example. Even when he’s fantasizing about the girl in the swimming pool and one of the kids mistakes him for Santa is so silly and perfect. Chevy Chase is a master of physical comedy, but I think this movie holds up so well is because everyone can relate to wanting your family to experience the perfect holiday. He yearns for it, and we want this guy to succeed. The relationships between the characters are so solid and three dimensional, and the chemistry between Randy Quaid and Chevy Chase is next level. I think as an audience, we buy the ridiculous moments throughout the film because the characters feel so real and grounded. We’ll let them get away with anything because they’re so endearing! This is a classic comedy that is always in my rotation of movies to watch again around the holiday season.”

“Auntie Mame is every Christmas movie in one and it’s brilliant for it,” said Star Trek: Pickard writer Juliana James. “Mame’s arc is wild. She goes from socialite to a broke single mom and then becomes a rich wife/widow traveling the world…and it feels completely reasonable because we’re just following Mame’s Christmas experience through the years. It’s honestly a great example of why inclusion in holiday movies is just going to keep growing. The holidays are experienced by everyone, whether it’s a great year or a terrible one, and our traditions bend to that truth. The more diverse the story, the more I see how connected we all are.”

The season may be over, but don’t wait to see It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas StoryThe Grinch, or Miracle on 34th Street to get inspired. 

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