If you turn on the Hallmark channel any time after Oct. 20, you'll be greeted by visions of snow-covered small-town streets, Christmas cookies, hot chocolate and stories of warm and fuzzy romances. This year alone, Hallmark is releasing 40 new Christmas movies, inspiring other networks like Lifetime, Great American Family and UpTV to do the same. The world of TV Christmas movies has grown exponentially over the past decade, largely due to Hallmark paving the path full of all things festive and holiday. But who's behind these cheery movies we turn to year after year? Some very talented screenwriters who love writing about Christmas as much as viewers love tuning in to watch the predictably feel-good stories unfold.
One of the most prolific Christmastime storytellers is Karen Schaler, the screenwriter and novelist behind the Netflix sensation A Christmas Prince (which led to two hit sequel films), Hallmark's Christmas Camp and Lifetime's Every Day is Christmas.
Wide Open Country caught up with Schaler, whose novel A Royal Christmas Fairytale hit the shelves in 2021, to discuss all things Christmas movies, how she wrote a smash hit romance flick and just what it is about those holiday films that make them so beloved.
How Are Christmas Movies Written?
For Schaler, her love of Christmas movies began as an escape.
"I worked at CNN as a White House correspondent, but I was always covering those difficult, hard news type stories. My escape was always at the holidays diving into the Christmas movies and the happy holiday novels to just try and find something a little uplifting to regenerate myself before going back to covering the news," Schaler tells Wide Open Country. "I was an embedded war correspondent in Afghanistan and I came back from covering an Apache helicopter unit in three different combat zones."
Upon her return, Schaler started hosting the TV series Travel Therapy. Following a surgery that kept her indoors for the holiday season, she turned to television Christmas movies and began studying them closer than ever before.
"I had a situation where I couldn't travel for a few weeks around the holidays because of a surgery...I thought, 'Wait, I finally have time to try and write a Christmas movie.' I was watching them nonstop," she says. "I was watching a Hallmark movie and I started studying them like a reporter. I was writing down: 'the first act break is 18 minutes. There has to be a near miss kiss.' You know, all the little tropes. I said, 'okay, I'm going to do this.' I've been very good at turning adversity into something positive."
Schaler ended up writing a spec script for what would become the 2017 Netflix hit A Christmas Prince, a film so popular it spawned two sequels, A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding and A Christmas Prince: The Royal Baby.
"The producers I was working with said 'We're going to try to sell A Christmas Prince to Hallmark.' That was the goal. Hallmark was the main game in town for Christmas movies," Schaler says. "So when I found out that it was bought by Netflix and it was Netflix's first original Christmas movie, I was shocked. I think a lot of viewers were shocked because you went on Netflix and there's a certain audience and a certain expectation. They hadn't seen this sweet, wholesome family-friendly kind of content that would be on the Hallmark channel. There was a much younger audience [that said] 'This is cheesy and corny! This is ridiculous.' But they were [also] like, 'But I kinda like it.' It became a cult favorite."
The Inspiration Behind Writing a Christmas Film
Schaler says it's no surprise she started writing Christmas movies and novels. After all, her love of Christmas runs so deep she's known as "Christmas Karen." Her birthday is right before the holiday (Dec. 19) and her great, great aunt was actually named Merry Christmas Day.
"I feel like I have Christmas in my blood," Schaler says. "It made sense to partner both Christmas and romance because I think Christmas is the most magical time of year and I always knew I wanted to write romance and feel-good, uplifting content. So it was a natural fit."
The author and screenwriter even created a real life Christmas Camp, inspired by her Hallmark movie and novel of the same name. ("You feel like you're living in one of those Christmas movies that you love," Schaler says of the camp.)
How Long Does it Take to Make a Hallmark Movie?
"Every writer is going to have a different answer for you, but I can give you some general ideas of what I've personally seen or what I've personally heard, because it is surprising to a lot of people," Schaler says of production time on tv holiday films. "When you're talking Hallmark and Lifetime movies specifically, you can shoot those movies in 16 days. They're shot very quickly. It wouldn't be surprising if some of them are wrapping up right now that you're still going to see for Christmas coming up. So when you're dealing with the Lifetime and the Hallmark Christmas movies, they can shoot in 16 days or a few days more than that. It's a very fast process. Now, from the time you write it to the time it hits the screen, that completely varies. I've heard of writers that wrote a Christmas movie and it took Hallmark or Lifetime 10 years to make it. I know somebody, like myself, that wrote one and it was made one month later. So it really depends."
"Once it goes into production, that process is very fast," she continued. "And that's the only way that you could see 140 new movies with a large majority of them coming from your Hallmark and your Lifetime. They have to turn them fast."
Schaler explained that networks such as Hallmark and Lifetime often accept ideas from several different writers, who are tasked with impressing executives with their pitch for a new movie.
"When you're hired... you're lucky if you have six weeks [to write the script]. So you're going to have to move pretty fast on it," Schaler says. "That's how I was able to do three movies and three novels in two years. I was ready to go... The Christmas industry of books and movies, it goes fast and furious."
Why Those Feel-Good, 'Cheesy' Christmas Movies are So Popular
In case it wasn't clear, made-for-TV Christmas movies are very, very popular.
"The last count was more than 140 new Christmas movies [in 2021], more than a hundred new Christmas novels — that's breaking all records," Schaler says. "Even if you watched one new Christmas movie every day, it would take more than four and a half months."
Still, despite their popularity, or perhaps because of their popularity, Schaler says she's encountered her fair share of Christmas movie Scrooges.
"When I first left doing TV news reporting and reporting from war zones, some people said 'Now you're writing Christmas movies and Christmas novels?' They thought that was a very strange journey to go on," she says. "But I feel the same responsibility when I'm telling these heartfelt Christmas stories as I did when I was covering the news, because it is a very sacred and magical time of year. It's a time of year people look forward to and it's when they're with family and friends and it's about community. So I feel a huge responsibility and honor that people are taking the time to watch my movies and to read my novels. It does feel like a very large responsibility. I want to make sure that I can deliver that escape and that magic and create memories."
Schaler experienced the fervor for holiday movies firsthand when her film A Christmas Prince hit Netflix. Following its 2017 release, there was no shortage of tweets poking fun at the lead character's journey to the fictional Aldovia to investigate the royal family. But just as many viewers found themselves — either bregrudgingly or enthusiastically — falling for the sweet holiday flick.
"That's how A Christmas Prince blew up. It had the audience: the traditional people that love the schmaltzy Christmas movies. That's what people like to call them," she says. "But then it had this new young audience that wasn't really sure what it was watching but it liked it. It made them laugh and feel good."
If you prefer to turn to Bruce Willis classics during the holidays, Schaler understands. But she still encourages the skeptics to give the feelgood Christmas films a try.
"I tell people who are on the fence....watch a couple movies. If you still don't like it, no worries. You won't be on Santa's naughty list," Schaler says. "You could go watch Die Hard. That's considered a Christmas movie, right? I just tell people, give it a shot and it might surprise you."
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in December of 2021. It was updated on Oct. 9, 2023.
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