Every year, millions of households turn their television to the Hallmark Channel and watch the saccharine, sentimental films that are as predictable as they are romantic. It’s comfort food. It’s family fair. It’s a tradition.
For the filmmakers who churned out the 41 Hallmark Christmas films premiering this year, it’s a challenge to create a new take on a somewhat formulaic concept. In that way, what’s the difference between writing a new Hallmark Christmas movie and a new episode of Law & Order?
On Friday, October 22, Hallmark’s Countdown to Christmas commences with the premiere of You, Me & The Christmas Trees starring rom-com favorite Danica McKellar, Benjamin Ayres and Jason Hervey, was written by Julie Sherman Wolfe and directed by David Winning, making this his 20th Hallmark romantic-comedy over the past six years.
Winning is a 40-year veteran of directing who has found himself directing multiple genres in both film and television over the years including science fiction TV shows, such as Andromeda, Earth: Final Conflict and Stargate and horror/thrillers like Netflix’s Van Helsing.
Winning embraces his opportunities to jump between genres stating, “One day you’re cutting down Christmas trees, the next day you’re cutting throats. In storytelling, it’s all entertainment. It doesn’t matter what genre you’re doing.”
He adds, “I’ve done all these genres and it really comes back to storytelling.”
In Winning’s world, getting pigeonholed into a specific genre is great.
“I always get pigeonholed,” he says. “It just happens. I did Sci-Fi for six years. Once you get in that, you go through a cycle of 4-5 years and people think that’s all you can do, and your agent is constantly trying to sell you in other genres. If you live long life, you end up doing a bit of everything.”
Part of his longevity and ability to jump between genres has been his belief in never turning a job down.
“Doing that, I’ve had the advantage of working in almost every kind of genre. It’s been great!” Also, he mentions with a smile, “I’d rather be pigeonholed than unemployed.”
Working for the network
When writers work with a network like the Hallmark Channel, they are subject to their guidelines; they’re kind of the boss. Hallmark has a specific guidebook to how they make movies, which makes sense as the audience for Christmas films spans to millions of viewers per movie. A writer or director isn’t going to mess with the formula.
The challenge for storytellers in this space is to bring something original to a similar concept.
“I’m proud of these movies,” Winning says. “I used to get teased, but I love doing stuff that’s tear-jerky, dramatic and funny. But there’s always room to bring your own character and viewpoint into these things.”
While Winning has been able to work with writers and change things up with the thrillers, he knows he can’t go crazy with Hallmark because they have an audience with expectations — of course, there has to be a kiss at the end. “If not, you’re in serious trouble,” he states.
Since starting his career nearly four decades ago, Winning has seen the structure has evolved.
“When I started writing scripts, it was the three-act structure. Now there is the blockbuster structure where you’re not in three acts, but nine,” Winning says. In terms of Hallmark, which uses a nine-act structure, there are 8-9 minutes per act with a bit of a cliffhanger, usually something to do with romance.
He adds, “With Hallmark, you have to have the suspense factor show up in act six where the audience tends to wonder, ‘will they get together?’”
Winning has a theory on why the fans keep coming back to Hallmark, even growing the audience.
“I think people gravitate toward Hallmark Channel because it’s dark times and through COVID and politics,” Winning comments.
“People like the safe harbor factor of Hallmark. As a kid I remember sitting around and watching Carol Burnett. It’s nice to think you’re giving that to families over Christmas – it’s feel-good entertainment.”
David Winning – the filmmaker
As a prolific filmmaker, Winning embraces getting into a groove and being supported by talented crew members, including camera department and production designers. In fact, he tries as often as he can to work with the same group of people.
He also enjoys the process of making movies regardless of the challenges. You, Me & The Christmas Trees was shot in Victoria, British Columbia in the summertime. Lots of Christmas movies are filmed in July, August or September so the issue is shooting when it’s really hot and everybody’s wearing parkas trying to pretend they’re frozen.
He didn’t know that it would be the first film in the Hallmark Countdown to Christmas lineup this year. He’s proud of that honor and thinks it turned out really well.
What keeps Winning going is simple:
“I’m still excited by movies. The day you stop being excited and stop being that 12-year-old kid with a camera is when you hang it up and quit.”
You, Me & The Christmas Trees premieres on the Hallmark Channel October 22.
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