‘It just feels warm and fuzzy’: how Hallmark built an empire of unashamedly schmaltzy rom-coms

In these safe and sweet TV movies, the only thing bigger than Valentine’s Day is Christmas. But are the US network’s cookie-cutter confections beginning to move with the times?

Avon, Connecticut, lies toward the north of the US state, a small town of perfect contour and construction, where even on a bare-branched midwinter afternoon, the light falls pleasingly across East Main Street. The population is largely white and affluent, and alongside the Walmart and the Whole Foods, there is a congregational church and a country store that, in the autumn months, offers hayrides to a nearby pumpkin patch.

When Julie Sherman Wolfe moved to Avon from Los Angeles five years ago, it was a relocation she came to regard as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sherman Wolfe is the screenwriter behind 22 Hallmark movies, from The Convenient Groom, via Right in Front of Me and Always Amore – films that were often set in precisely the kind of quaint New England town to which she and her family had moved. The draw for Sherman Wolfe echoed the on-screen appeal for viewers. “I think the more unsafe the world seems, the safer a small town seems,” she says. “It’s the idea that less bad stuff is going to happen to you in Avon than it is in Brooklyn. It’s a nostalgia thing, where it just feels warm and fuzzy.”

For the uninitiated, the Hallmark movie is a genre of made-for-TV romantic comedy now so ubiquitous that the term “Hallmark movie” has extended to encompass any TV movie of a similar tone and aesthetic, regardless of whether it has been made by the Hallmark Channel. There are variations on the basic theme – different locations, the possible involvement of royalty, perhaps an element of the supernatural – but the plot invariably runs along the lines of: high-flying career woman returns from the big city to the small town where she was raised in order to sell the family pecan farm. She insists upon wearing inappropriate footwear and brims with disdain for small-town life. But a series of unexpected events leads her to appreciate the charms of a simpler existence, and to rekindle her love for her high school sweetheart, who is now the town baker.

Jesse Metcalfe and Autumn Reeser in A Country Wedding
Stable relationship … Jesse Metcalfe and Autumn Reeser in A Country Wedding (2015). Photograph: Cinematic Collection/Alamy

Thanks to the predictability of the Hallmark movie framework, over the past few years the films have become rich meme-fodder. There was even an AI experiment in which a bot was fed 1,000 hours of Hallmark movies then asked to write its own screenplay (the result was a heartwarming tale of a widowed single mother working for a small-town snow globe company).

So unchallenging and untextured is the Hallmark world that it is easy to regard these movies as harmless entertainment. But as their reach has spread they have also diffused an idea of home and life and relationships that has been traditional and conservative, and perhaps even retrograde. “In this particular kind of romance, there’s always an affirmation of some really conventional standard,” says Billy Mernit, author of the bestselling textbook Writing the Romantic Comedy, and a story analyst for Universal Pictures. “It’s straight up middle-American heartland values.”

The Hallmark Channel can trace its lineage back to the early 1990s, when two religious cable TV channels, the American Christian Television System and Vision Interfaith Satellite Network, began companionably sharing time on a satellite service. Over the years that followed, the combined network moved through several incarnations and investment structures, until in August 2001, now owned by Crown Media Holdings, itself owned by the Hallmark Cards Inc, it was rebranded as the Hallmark Channel.

While the network introduced secular shows alongside its faith-based output, its programming remained resolutely wholesome (aside, perhaps, for the vague lustfulness of repeats of the Golden Girls). When it began creating original movies, the romances they portrayed were remarkably chaste. To this day, there is no sex, drugs or swearing in a Hallmark film, no politics or violence or drunkenness. “In standard theatrical romcoms it all busted open in the 60s,” notes Mernit. “But Hallmark movies kind of act as if that never happened.”

For Sherman Wolfe, these parameters make for something distinct. “The thing that makes these movies special is they’re a safe thing for everyone to watch,” she argues. “Your little kid and Grandma can watch it together.”

While other production companies have attempted to imitate the genre, she argues that they often fall flat precisely because they don’t work within the same family-oriented restrictions. “They have more freedom, they can have sex and swearing and murder, but it dilutes the beauty of what it’s supposed to be,” she says.

Compared to your average cinematic release, Hallmark movies are cheap to produce, rumoured to be a little over $2m per film. Accordingly, there is something gently low-budget to the productions: the sets, the wardrobe, the effects feel more homely than Hollywood. Although the likes of Danny Glover and Megan Markle have starred in Hallmark fllms, the actors are usually familiar but not famous. You are most likely to recognise them from other Hallmark movies (Candace Cameron Bure, for instance, has 30 Hallmark credits to her name).

Elizabeth Henstridge and Rebecca Street in Christmas at the Plaza
I wish it could be Christmas every day … Elizabeth Henstridge and Rebecca Street in Christmas at the Plaza (2019). In 2021, the network made 41 Christmas movies. Photograph: Everett Collection/Alamy

There are, after all, a lot of movies to make. The Hallmark scheduling year has nine distinct seasons: films devoted to New Year, to spring, and to Valentine’s Day; then comes the countdown to summer, followed by actual summer, June weddings, Christmas in July, and autumn. Then, in October, the channel begins its much-vaunted countdown to Christmas. The season is big business for Hallmark. In 2021, the channel made 41 Christmas movies – an increase from just 11 in 2010, and more than 35 million people tuned in to watch them – the majority female, aged 25 to 54. With the holiday market secured, it makes sense for the channel to also try to corner other seasons.

The weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day have been branded as Loveuary by Hallmark, and this year offerings number six new films, including Sweeter Than Chocolate, A Paris Proposal and Welcome to Valentine, which stars Kathryn Davis as Olivia, a career-driven New Yorker who loses both her boyfriend and her job in quick succession and must return home to her home town of Valentine, Nebraska. Along the way she hitches a ride with her roommate’s friend George (Markian Tarasiuk) and as their roadtrip unfolds, she begins to re-evaluate her ideas of love.

This is Davis’s second Hallmark film, and her first as a lead (she made her debut in a supporting role in 2020’s A Christmas Carousel). As with most Hallmark movies, the turnaround was fast. “I got the offer on the Thursday, I took the offer on the Friday, and then I was flown out to Ottawa on the Wednesday,” Davis says, speaking from her home in Toronto. “Then we started rolling the Monday after.”

Welcome to Valentine’s premise seemed to Davis both hopeful and accessible. And there is a place, she believes, for this kind of story in among rolling news cycles and the disconnection of social media. “It’s just optimism,” she says. “Good stories kind of get buried in the turmoil of everyday life. So I think it is that opportunity to just remember that just beyond your door, there’s the opportunity to fall in love, to meet someone, to make a connection.”

Sherman Wolfe is the first to admit that there is a formula to Hallmark movies. There are nine acts (as opposed to a conventional movie structure of three) to accommodate eight advertising breaks. “Act one and act two, is setting everybody up, a little conflict,” she says. “Act three, they’re put together and maybe there’s a couple of little moments where they think: ‘Oh, I really think I really like this person, despite my misgivings.’ And then acts four, five, six, they start actually falling in love. But that conflict is still there. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we know something’s going to go wrong. And in act seven something goes wrong. In act eight, it’s over. And then the last act they make up happily ever after.”

Traditionally, she says, the Hallmark formula did not allow the actors to kiss before the final scene. In more recent times, they might be permitted an earlier kiss, somewhere around the midway point, to shore up their burgeoning affections.

Meghan Markle and Christopher Jacot in When Sparks Fly
Queen of hearts … Meghan Markle stars alongside Christopher Jacot in When Sparks Fly (2014). Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

Alongside this structural pattern runs a distinct moral path for the films’ protagonists. “One of the most important things that we try to do is make sure that where we have a relationship, each one of them helps each other in some way to grow,” Sherman Wolfe says. “So a lot of times if people are just starting out writing for Hallmark, you’ll see a story where the man will change the woman, or the woman will change the man. But we like to have both of them help each other get on the right path.”

You could trace Hallmark’s familiar narrative all the way back to Thomas Jefferson, the founding father who did most to imbue the US with this notion of rural superiority and the pleasures of the simple life. “When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe,” he said, “we shall become as corrupt as in Europe.” Rural America, he argued, was the real America.

Ever since, this trope has played a recognisable role in American cultural and political rhetoric. When Pete Buttigieg embarked on the presidential primaries in 2020, he drew on his midwestern upbringing to bolster his campaign: “We need Washington to look more like our small towns, not the other way around,” he declared. Bill Clinton’s political narrative has long rested not on his time spent at Oxford or Yale, but on his childhood in Hope, Arkansas – a town that all but sounds like a Hallmark movie setting.

Finding the archetypal small town often falls to Andrew Gernhard, locations specialist and founder of Connecticut-based Synthetic Cinema International. When we speak, Gernhard is in North Carolina, shooting a film called A Biltmore Christmas, which stars Hallmark favourite Bethany Joy Lenz. Gernhard came to Hallmark movies via horror films (a curiously common route), and is now adept at finding the kind of warm and intimate setting appropriate for a TV romcom, sometimes shooting in Canada or even Iceland, but most often in Connecticut. “Connecticut is perfect because it’s this old New England style,” he says. “There’s something about the Victorian houses and the history that’s there. It just feels like Christmas.”

Mernit likens the sets of Hallmark movies to model train layouts, “where you could assemble your little town and the people in it. They are trying to reconstruct a quasi-imaginary America of some 40 or 50 years ago.” It is a strange depiction of America, Mernit says, suggesting that a more accurate portrayal might be 2020’s Nomadland, in which Frances McDormand leaves her fading industrial town to find seasonal work, living out of a mobile home, her life becoming increasingly itinerant.

But the more unrooted our lives and communities feel, the more we might cling to the idea of a world that seemed simpler, safer, sweeter. “You have this determined attempt to turn the clock back, says Mernit. “Where else are you going to find the apple pie you baked for dinner, with the family in that imaginary cookie-cutter home? It’s alive and well on the Hallmark screen.”

Those who work for Hallmark are keen to note how the channel is evolving. Davis says that as a mixed-race actor she has noted an increasing diversity in casting. Sherman Wolfe, who is Jewish, talks of writing the Hallmark film Hanukkah on Rye, and of a broadening, more inclusive notion of what “the holiday season” might mean. Last year also brought the network’s first gay romcom. “The core of it is still where it was, which is about love and family and friendship and all those things,” says Sherman Wolfe. “It just expands the world that we can see them in.”

Still, the Hallmark world is so distinct for Sherman Wolfe that she carries the thought of it – accessible, joyful, comforting – into her office each morning. There she lowers the window blinds, turns on the Christmas lights and sits down at her desk, in her white colonial house, with its red front door and its black shutters, in her small Connecticut town, where the light falls pleasingly across East Main Street.

In the UK you can watch Hallmark via Amazon Prime.


Laura Barton

The GuardianTramp

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