I was in a Hallmark Christmas movie… in Utah
I’m walking through the streets of New York, snow swirling around me as a light fog settles on the city. It’s beautiful the way the streets are lit for the Christmas season, giving passersby a holiday glow as they hurry to their next destination. Then someone curses.
“I bet they’re filming another Hallmark Christmas movie,” she says, “I watch those [expletives] every year and they’re always filmed in Salt Lake City.”
She’s right. I am not in New York City. I’m on the set of “Christmas Wonderland,” a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie filmed on Exchange Place―one of Salt Lake City’s most New York-esque alleyways. And it is most certainly not December, it’s a blustery October day―the snow merely the glittery remains of a special effects budget.
It all started several months ago when I ran into the location director for Curiously Strong Productions. She was filming a Hallmark Christmas film, she told me and needed to feed her hungry crew. I gushed, telling her all about my deep affection for the network’s annual Christmas special.
It’s true. I’m one of those “Hallmark people.” Addicted to hopelessly romantic storylines involving big city dreams, small town joys, a sweet little inn decorated for the holidays, the occasional royal prince, and actors you’d probably recognize from something you watched in your childhood. It really is a winning formula.
Christmas Is Booming
Apparently, Hallmark thinks so too. Since 2001, the network has increasingly upped their investment in Countdown to Christmas, the company’s annual Christmas special. This year, Countdown to Christmas will debut 37 new Christmas movies. That’s up from the 33 they made in 2017, the 28 they made in 2016, the 21 they made in 2015, and the 12 they made in 2014.
It shouldn’t work. For starters, there’s the fact that these films are decidedly low budget. Every Hallmark Christmas movie is filmed with a less than $2 million budget and is filmed in under three weeks time. Compare that to the average family film which costs between $100-$150 million to make, and takes between six to eight weeks to shoot.
Then there’s the fact that most networks have gone the way of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu to distribute their content. Not so with Hallmark. Despite the fact that an estimated 22 million Americans “cut the cord” in 2017, Hallmark Channel’s Countdown to Christmas is sticking with cable. In fact, it’s the only place you can watch their films.
That means every December, despite not being hooked up to cable, I download the Sling App so I can watch heartwarming holiday specials whenever I so desire. Because despite low budgets, live viewing, and the fact that the Christmas films recycle sets, actors, and storylines, none of it seems to deter the network’s viewers. Myself included.
Last year, The Hallmark Channel’s Countdown To Christmas Special attracted more than 72 million viewers. And the competition has been quick to take note. Lifetime debuted 14 new Christmas movies this year, up from six the year before. Even Netflix is getting in on the action, debuting their first original Christmas movie in 2017 with the surprise hit, “A Christmas Prince.” It did so well, they’re following it up this year with its sequel: “A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding.”
It appears that cable networks everywhere have discovered a Christmas sweet spot―and they’ve spent every season since capitalizing on it.
Utah Is Becoming The Christmas Capital
If you live in Utah you might recognize more than a few local landmarks featured throughout these holiday films. Exchange Place―as we’ve discussed―is a popular city destination in many a Hallmark film. Park City and its historic Main Street have been used as small-town scenery more than once. The Zermatt Resort in Midway is a popular set destination as are Salt Lake City businesses such as Eva’s Bakery, The Hope Gallery, and Mrs. Backer’s Pastry Shop.
In fact, when I met with Jarrod Phillips, the president at Curiously Strong Productions, he tells me he’s worked on eight Hallmark Christmas Films and four Lifetime Christmas films in the past couple years―all of them filmed in Utah.
This is a fairly recent thing. Up until a few years ago, Hallmark set the majority of their films in and around Vancouver, Canada due to tax incentives. Then Utah implemented a tax incentive in 2005 that made the state far more appealing as a set destination. According to the Motion Picture Incentive Program, productions that spend between $500,000 and $1 million in the state of Utah are eligible for a 20 percent tax credit. And those who spend more than $1 million are eligible for a 25 percent tax credit.
Partnered with the fact that Utah is a “right-to-work” state―meaning actors and crewmembers don’t need to be part of a union to work on the film―Utah has since been able to attract series’ such as HBO’s “Westworld,” and Paramount’s “Yellowstone,” as well as budget-friendly films by Hallmark and Lifetime. Thanks to these incentives, both networks are able to replicate their Canadian business model in Utah.
“The tax incentive program, the stunning locations that Utah offers, as well as the kind and receptive population, are certainly a few of the reasons these companies choose Utah over and over again,” says Derek Mellus, a production manager at the Utah Film Commission. “Utah is also very turnkey for film production. We have talented crews, actors, and all of the necessary equipment… Our proximity to Los Angeles helps as well. When out-of-state producers come here on their 90-minute flight, they are always pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to film in Utah.”
Everything You Need To Film A Christmas Movie
That’s what gave Mr. Phillips the idea to start Figment Productions, a subsidiary of his parent company, Curiously Strong that focuses exclusively on Christmas content.
The idea is this: Christmas films are formulaic, low-budget, and filmed on a time crunch. What could be better for a network who thrives on large quantities of them, than a production company who has everything in place to churn them out, one right after another? Think Ford’s assembly line for Model Ts, but for Christmas movies. “Hallmark could say, we have this project, here are the dates,” says Mr. Phillips. “And we could say, ‘great, here’s your crew, here’s everything you need, let’s go make a movie.’”
There’s certainly a need for that, at least economically. “We have these big diesel trucks hauling trailers back and forth from LA,” says Mr. Phillips. “Then we spend all our time as glorified movers. Just loading and unloading trucks everywhere we go.” Then there’s the waste. “We spend a certain amount of money on set decorations. We rent stuff, we buy stuff. Some of it gets returned, some of it gets sold, and a lot of it gets donated. So if we could keep those resources and reuse them then there’d be some kind of economy of scale at some point.”
Eventually, he says, the company could even have their own facility. “The facility itself would have a place where you could build a set or two. And maybe we’d have a couple of standing sets, like a New York City apartment. Every single one of these [films] calls for a New York City apartment, city streets, a gazebo, etc.” If Figment could have all of these pieces already in place, they could essentially create a Christmas movie factory right here in Utah.
The idea comes with a personal agenda for Mr. Phillips. “There are so many people who work so hard in this industry and there’s very little reward or appreciation. There are no benefits really unless you join a union. But we’re going to come in and pay you a salary, you’ll be a full-time employee with benefits, vacation time, and everything else. And we’ll bring in the shows and have all the pieces ready.”
Let’s Make Magic
“Would you like to be an extra in one of the films?” Mr. Phillips later asks me during one of our interviews together. I gasp audibly. I couldn’t even form the words needed to answer. Thankfully my photographer does for me: “She’d love to,” he says, “it would be her dream come true.”
That’s how I found myself standing in the middle of a snow-covered fairytale in downtown Salt Lake City. Standing only feet away from the movie’s star, Emily Osment. When I arrived on set, I was told not to speak with any of the cast and crew. I’m only an extra after all, and they have a job to do, so I keep my head down and I watch.
The special effects crew dazzles the sidewalk with a substance resembling snow, passersby audibly wonder what’s going on and I delight in telling them that we’re filming a movie. Ms. Osment rehearses her lines between takes, and I walk by her on the streets of New York so many times that I can hardly contain my excitement.
By the end of the day, I’ve spent more than 13 hours on set, most of them on my feet and in the cold. Happily exhausted, I take the shuttle back to basecamp, collect $114 for my hard day’s work and head home, dreaming of December 1st and the party I’ll host to celebrate my big debut with Hallmark.
“There’s so much value in this entertainment for people.” Mr. Phillips says. “People that watch them are so devoted to them. And yeah, the storylines are similar and you know what to expect, but you still get sucked in. There’s so much negative crap out there, and here’s a wholesome love story that leaves you feeling good.”
I’m so into that.