The Gift That Keeps on Giving: on the Classical Holiday Studio System
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This essay is offered as a companion piece to my colleague Walter Metz’s excellent essay “A Hallmark of the Classical Holiday Cinema, or Meeting Two Christmas Queens.” Lifetime is my personal Christmas film brand of choice – mainly because my basic cable package doesn’t include Hallmark, Ion, or UPtv and I don’t have a Netflix subscription. This is not necessarily a problem as far as being a basic-cable Christmas film consumer.
In the course of my annual November-December holiday ritual of sitting hypnotized by the It’s a Wonderful Lifetime marathons of Christmas films, one “new film” was A Golden Christmas. In fact, A Golden Christmas performed double-duty in 2018 asserting the true meaning of Christmas – airing on Ion December 8 and December 24, Lifetime on December 22 and 23 – because it is actually a 2009 Ion Christmas film that could be repurposed as a “new” Lifetime Christmas film simply because it was making its first appearance as part of It’s a Wonderful Lifetime nearly a decade after its original release. Moreover, the star of A Golden Christmas Andrea Roth is also the star of Crazy for Christmas (2005, Eleanore Lindo), a film that has been part of the It’s a Wonderful Lifetime roster for thirteen years: in 2018 it was rebroadcast on November 18 and November 26.
In 2018 alone, Hallmark Channel featured twenty-two original Christmas movies, Ion six, UPtv seven, and Lifetime fourteen along with nine “acquired originals” (A Golden Christmas being one of the latter). Looking at the credits of these Christmas films one sees a list of recurring names besides the “beloved stars.” Screenwriter Barbara Kymlicka has well over thirty Christmas films and Lifetime rom-thrillers credited or co-credited to her from 2011-2018. Director Marita Grabiak directed two Lifetime Christmas films with Kymlicka screenplays, Christmas in the City (2013) and Four Christmases and a Wedding (2017); Grabiak also directed With Love, Christmas (2017) for Hallmark with the screenplay provided by Marcy Holland. In turn, Marcy Holland is another prolific screenwriter with close to thirty writing or co-writing credits on Christmas films (and rom-thrillers) from 2102-2018 including It’s a Wonderful Lifetime staples Christmas on the Bayou (2012), Wish Upon a Christmas (2105), and Christmas in Mississippi (2017). Director Christie Will Wolf (a.k.a. Christie Will) collaborated with Kymlicka on the very aptly-titled A Cookie Cutter Christmas (2014) for Hallmark Channel and two for Lifetime, Becoming Santa (2015) and Poinsettias for Christmas (2018).
In comparing these four trailers, there are four combinations of screenwriter-director-network: Kymlicka-Wolf-Hallmark; Kymlicka-Grabiak-Lifetime; Holland-Grabiak-Hallmark; and Kymlicka-Wolf-Lifetime. Yet the credits could be interchangeable with the films themselves – A Cookie Cutter Christmas could easily be the product of Kymlicka or Holland, Grabiak or Wolf, and Hallmark or Lifetime.
To pursue this further, Fred Olen Ray began his career in the 1980s as a low-budget horror/sexploitation filmmaker and rebranded into an auteur –to use the term loosely – of Christmas films and rom-thrillers; his directing credits for 2018 include Ion’s A Wedding for Christmas and A Christmas in Royal Fashion as well as Lifetime’s Killer Fiancé. Ray is also a familiar name during It’s a Wonderful Lifetime, having directed A Christmas Wedding Date and All I Want for Christmas, two films which premiered on Ion before subsequently making their way into Lifetime’s annual rotation of Christmas films. To note, Ray also directed A Christmas in Vermont (2016) which first aired on Ion and has since aired on UPtv as part of that network’s annual holiday bloc programming.
To loosely borrow the term from Walter Metz, these Christmas films are products of a “Classical Holiday Studio System,” similar yet different to the classical Hollywood studio system. As Thomas Schatz contended, classical Hollywood cinema was
a period when various social, industrial, technological, economic and aesthetic forces stuck a delicate balance...to provide a consistent system of production and consumption...a standard way of telling stories, from camera work and cutting to plot structure and thematics. It was the studio system that held those various forces in equilibrium.... What’s most remarkable...is that such varied andcontradictory forces were held in equilibrium for so long.
Rather than a system of competing studios in the cultural marketplace – Columbia, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount, RKO, 20th Century Fox, United Artists, Universal, and Warner Brothers were the major ones in the era – the basic cable Christmas film is a kind of studio system unto itself. The genre is thoroughly standardized to allow for mass (culture) production precisely and holiday season consumption because the Christmas films are not expected to supply something new but quite the opposite: they are required to supply more of the same by trafficking in familiarity and nostalgia – like a new set of ornaments to put on the Christmas tree every holiday season that can mix-and-match with the old ones became they are no different.
Predictability is a virtue. Hence, the networks can be supplied Christmas films made by independent production companies, the notables including Annuit Coeptis Entertainment II, Hybrid LLC, Johnson Production Group, and MarVista Entertainment – the same companies that frequently supply other non-Christmas films for the respective networks (such as Lifetime’s ever-expanding stable of rom-thrillers). Nonetheless, other production companies can easily step in and supply a Christmas film. Christmas with a View and Christmas with a Prince were two 2018 entries into the market from Brain Power Studio: both adapted from Harlequin romance novels, both directed by Justin G. Dyck, and both starring Kaitlyn Leeb. The former landed on Netflix and the latter on UPtv.
To be sure, this Classical Holiday Studio System is positively rife for an aesthetic and ideological takedown as far Theodor W. Adorno’s assessment of the Culture Industry: a system of cultural production as “the standardization of the thing itself –such as that of the Western, familiar to every movie-goer... the rationalization of distribution techniques, but not strictly to the production process.” A Cookie Cutter Christmas, Hallmark’s Christmas Incorporated (2015), Hallmark’s Christmas Encore (2017), or Lifetime’s Every Other Holiday (2018) are always-already dependable Christmas film product for always-already (over)determined consumption. Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious Christmas by the Classical Holiday Studio System.
Doyle Greene is an independent scholar who has written several books and articles on film, popular music, and television. His primarily area of interest is ideology critique of American popular culture. He currently serves as a co-editor for Film Criticism.
As quoted at https://deadline.com/2018/09/lifetime-decks-its-halls-with-23-holiday-themed-movies-more-cheer-1202469310/. Accessed on December 19, 2018.
Thomas Schatz, “From The Genius of the System: ‘The Whole Equation of Pictures,’” in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, 4th ed., eds. Gerald Mast, Marshall Cohen, and Leo Baudry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 657.