Enjoy the holiday movies while they last
I’m Paul Musgrave, a political scientist and writer. This is Systematic Hatreds, my newsletter about my thoughts regarding politics and the study of politics. The newsletter takes its title from a line in The Education of Henry Adams:
Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.
(Yes, I’ve slightly changed the name to reflect the quotation a little better, and to make the newsletter sound less like a Konmari guide.)
This week, we’re talking about something seasonal: the business of Christmas movies, and why we’ve probably reached—or are about to reach—peak Christmas movie.
On Christmas Eve, Foreign Policy released my definitive take on Christmas movies. If you haven’t read it, here’s the teaser:
If the finale of every Christmas movie is about finding the true meaning of Christmas, then what’s the true meaning of Christmas movies? It’s because of all of these factors, not despite them, that these films tell us something about Americans and their place in the world.
What Christmas movies show is that the world Americans want to live in isn’t the world they’ve made. Most Americans live in suburbs, but holiday movies exist in a world of small towns and big cities that feel like small towns. Most Americans work in low-status service jobs, but holiday movies promise that fulfilling work is just one true meaning of Christmas away. Giant corporations loyal only to profits dominate the real economy, but Christmas movie economies run on small businesses deeply embedded in their societies.
What you may not know, but what my editor alluded to on Twitter, is that the piece was supposed to be at least two times that long. (Okay, actually, I wrote it a little long.) So now you get the #MusgraveCut—or, at least, the pieces that were cut out.
Something I wanted to make sure would happen in the piece is that it treated Christmas movies as commercial, not just quasi-artistic, objects. Regarding culture as a material phenomenon is, of course, traditional—and it helps explains where traditions, like beloved Christmas movies, come from:
Historians established decades ago that many of the customs we think of as “timeless” were actually invented relatively recently—like the elaborate traditions around Scottish “clan tartans”, which blossomed in early 19th century Scottish cities, not remote Highlands fastnesses.
Applying those techniques to traditions like Christmas movies similarly reveals a lot about American society. For instance, you may think that you love Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life because of its themes of hope and redemption, but fundamentally your affection derives from a quirk of intellectual property law.
Far from being an instant classics, It’s a Wonderful Life was such a big flop when it was released that it bankrupted Capra’s studio. It built up an audience because a clerical error sent the film into the public domain in 1974. Because television stations could show it endlessly without paying royalties, the film became a classic because of its seasonal ubiquity. (A later Supreme Court case yanked the film out of the public domain, thereby enriching the Potter-esque suits who owned the sentimental classic.)
The key point about the business of making Christmas movies is that it’s a business. And their made-to-order, private-label status is a big advantage for them
A tentpole production like Disney/Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame has a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars, while even a more modest production like 2019’s The Goldfinchcost a reported $40 million. By contrast, estimates for the cost of a typical Christmas movie range closer to about $2 million to $10 million—about the same range as the inflation-adjusted cost of the 1997 Pizza Hut commercial featuring Mikhail Gorbachev. Even a single episode of The Crown or The Mandalorian might cost as much as several of these movies.
An average major studio release might then require another fortune in marketing costs ($40 million, estimatesThe Hollywood Reporter), which platforms and cable channels can avoid. And the films are meant to be shot in a couple of weeks, less time than it might take to do reshoots for a major film like Star Wars: Rogue One.
This makes Christmas movies (and their non-Christmas counterparts) the heirs to previous generations’ low-budget B-movies—the kind that starred Warner Brothers contract actor Ronald Reagan, better known for his later work. (Reflecting on his films years later, Reagan joked “the producers didn’t want them good, they wanted them Thursday.”)
How does this get us to Peak Christmas Movie? Well, let’s look at the business cases for the two sorts of platforms that deliver these: cable channels and streaming services.
Cable channels first. As the article explains, Hallmark and Lifetime use these films to deliver a demographic that advertisers want—18-to-54-year-old women in good earnings brackets. To be sure, Crown Media Holdings, which owns the Hallmark channels (yes, there’s more than one—a point I skipped over in every draft, because my God there’s so many details already), makes money in other ways:
For Crown’s parent company, Hallmark Cards (founded and still majority-owned by the Hall family), there are other ways that these movies can make money, including cross-promotions with cards and other merchandise. A company press release touts, for example, that the “Christmas in Evergreen” Hallmark movie series is “based on the collection of fine art by Hallmark Cards’ master artist and illustrator, Geoff Greenleaf”.
Still, the firm’s officials have made clear that they face real pressures. In November 2019, then-Crown CEO Bill Abbott—later ousted over the same-sex commercial fracas—complained to Variety that smaller channels like Crown faced an anticompetitive environment in dealing with cable companies, leaving them to earn pittances from subscriber fees while bigger groups like Disney. “There isn’t an awful lot of incentive to carry us when you own networks that compete directly with our channel,” Abbott said. (Okay, let’s unpack that: Hallmark’s chief competitor Lifetime is a subsidiary of a subsidiary owned by a joint venture of Disney, Hearst, and NBC Universal, the latter of which is owned by Cabletown, I mean Comcast.)
Abbott warned that those pressures might make the company unsustainable. “If a company like Hallmark has issues surviving in the entertainment landscape, with the great content we have, the ratings that we have, the success, the popularity, the amazing original productions that we create—if we have a difficult time seeing a path forward in this linear environment, then there’s something wrong with the system,” Abbott said.
Then there’s streaming services:
Platforms like Netflix, by contrast, make money not through advertising or subscriber fees but by attracting and retaining subscribers. Unlike a cable channel, then, a platform has no incentive to specialize but to reach the widest audience it can by providing the biggest selection of programming possible.
As an article in Harvard Business Review explains, “the more products a seller can offer consumers in a bundle, the better that seller can predict the average value of the bundle across different consumers.” If a platform like Netflix or Hulu can gauge subscribers’ willingness to pay accurately, it “can set a price just slightly below that value and extract the maximum value possible from its audience.” That Netflix—notorious for data-driven decisionmaking—has followed Hallmark and others lead in commissioning stockings full of Christmas movies suggests that they attract an audience.
Netflix’s frenetic production of more content reflects not just a business model but competitive pressures from Amazon, Hulu, and new entrants like Disney+ and HBO Max. Those rivals not only produce their own content but also lock up much other libraries, spurring Netflix to make more. Analysts attributed Netflix’s late 2020 subscription price increases to the rising costs—as much as $18.5 billion in 2020 alone.
These economic constraints do a lot to explain the sameness of all of these movies.
Much of that standardization comes from audience expectations, to be sure. Given how cheaply and how quickly these movies have to be made, it’s hardly a surprise that they turn out to recycle the same basic plots. And they also share a visual language: memes showing Christmas movie promotional images circulate every holiday season, proving that it’s not just your imagination that these movies do indeed frequently feature “Christmas movie posters with white heterosexual couples wearing red and green” (as one Redditor put it). (Although let’s be real—this isn’t something unique to the Christmas movie genre: Pretty much all posters within a given film genre look the same.)
Like any formula, the joy in these movies comes from their variations.
Yet it’s more impressive to dwell on the variations that the creators can develop within these confines. “Despite the endlessly repeated clichés,” film studies professor Walter Metz writes, “there is a great deal of plot modulation, innovations within sub-genres that result in not only watchable, but highly enjoyable bursts of creativity.”
A California Christmas, for example, recycles the “evil developer” trope—but also features a family struggling to pay the bills for a mother with chemotherapy. Let It Snow inventively combines young adult genre tropes with Christmas movie clichés. And the genre has grown to the point that there are meta-commentaries, like A Christmas Movie Christmas (two sisters wake up inside a Christmas movie and use their knowledge of the genre to find the true meaning of…you know) and the Emma Roberts vehicle Holidate, a raunchy send-up of the genre best described as the Deadpool of the Netflix Christmas Universe. (There’s a reason you won’t see that on the Hallmark Channel, by the way: Netflix is product-differentiating with jokes about blowjobs and getting high even while remaining within the familiar confines of the genre.)
Well, we’ve wandered a bit from the Peak Christmas Movie argument, but if you can tell, I’m actually building to it.
We’re at, or nearing, Peak Christmas Movie for the same reason we’re at, or nearing, Peak Television. All of the factors that are driving the combination of competition and investment in the streaming sector are pushing for more content have, as an unintended consequence, put Netflix and other platforms in competition with Hallmark, Lifetime, and other channels. The streaming services have to beat each other and deliver a bundle that can replace the channels’ demographic hold. The channels, by contrast, are going hard for every last ad dollar they can, and specializing in ever-more-finely defined niches to do so.
Eventually, this won’t be able to hold. Eventually, cable channels will get squeezed out and households will get tired of streaming subscriptions (at the moment, my household subscribes to five, a number that will go down when I cancel my Hallmark subscription in a few days). And that means that eventually Christmas movies will be produced in the low dozens, or even single digits, rather than in the high dozens or low three digits as in the past few years.
What I’m Reading
This week, I’ve been reading Eri Hotta’s Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy. (It’s seasonal—it’s about December!)
Hotta presents a fascinating, blow-by-blow account of Japan’s sleepwalking into war. The attack on Pearl Harbor was far from preordained. It came not from a masterstroke or even a conscious gamble but from a game of chicken within the Japanese regime (it’s too complex to refer to it as a “government”) in which neither the army nor the navy nor the civilians wanted to take the blame for reaching a negotiated settlement with the United States. Such a settlement would inevitably involve withdrawing from Indochina, China, and elsewhere—an unbearable humiliation. That neither the emperor nor the U.S. government was able to bolster the prospects for a peaceful settlement contributed to the calamity, but Hotta makes clear that it was the weakness and confusion of Prime Minister Konoe and his successor Tojo that led to Japan’s embarking on a suicidal path. Highly recommended.