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How Hallmark Built a ‘Brand Experience’ Around ‘Countdown to Christmas’

A decade into Hallmark’s “Countdown to Christmas” initiative, the demand for original programming is higher than ever, with more holiday-themed projects across platforms. But for Hallmark, the only true competition comes from within.

“We push ourselves every year to do even more — and ‘more’ may not mean volume, but to make high-quality stories, to learn from what we’ve done really well in the past, and see what we can build on, to engage talent we haven’t worked with before and at the same time create the family of talent that we work with,” says Michelle Vicary, executive vice president, programming and network publicity, Crown Media Family Networks.

Hallmark’s first holiday film was released in 2002, but its “Countdown to Christmas” lineup began in earnest in 2010. This year there are 40 original movies — a record number — and the first one made its debut before Halloween. Airing on the Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries channels, these movies range from Thanksgiving family tales, to some of their first Hanukkah stories, to general winter celebrations as well as the titular Christmas films. With the content running until the end of December, Hallmark is also able to celebrate New Year’s Eve with the last original movie on its programming block for the year, “New Year, New Me.”

“We have a 24/7 news cycle — it’s a constant need to be fed — and we have a lot of dark, edgy programming out in the world that’s fantastic, but as in the human experience, it’s a huge spectrum, and where we live is with positivity and celebration and emotional connection, and that’s unique to what we do,” Vicary says. “If you choose to spend two hours of your time with us, you’re going to feel a little bit better about the world and yourself and your community.”

This many years in, Hallmark has cultivated a group of key talent that comes back again and again for projects — actors such as Candace Cameron Bure and Lacey Chabert, who have each done eight original holiday movies for the brand, the most of anyone, as well as behind-the-scenes creatives such as writer and director Ron Oliver. The Hallmark pedigree has also made it a destination for icons including Dolly Parton, Blake Shelton and Kristin Chenoweth, who all have projects on the slate this year.

“The values of the brand were and still are today exactly where I wanted to be within my career,” says Bure. “I’ve been in the business for almost 40 years now actively working on television, and as much as I am best-known as D.J. Tanner on ‘Full House,’ which is a multi-generational show, unequivocally I can say that as many people know me and recognize me based on these Hallmark movies. It feels so good that people love these movies so much.”

Bure’s first foray into Hallmark’s holiday season (2008’s “Moonlight & Mistletoe”) was actually her first role after a self-imposed 10-year hiatus from acting. In the years since, she has made these projects a priority in her production schedule and racked up four of the top 10 rated projects in the “Countdown to Christmas” history. This year she stars in “Christmas Town,” which revolves around foster care and adoption.

“They have such a specific formula, you don’t want to go outside it too much — nor would I even recommend it — because it’s the reason why they’re successful,” Bure says. “But we have diverse families, we have diverse cultures, and the younger audience [needs] to relate to the movies as they continue to go on for the next 10 years.”

Oliver, who has “Christmas at the Plaza” premiering this year, adds that while they always “try to get in tradition, and play the sense of family and the things we all cherish, and do a love story in the middle” of any “Countdown to Christmas” movie, as success has grown year over year, it has allowed more creative freedom with the types of stories being told.

“There are people from all walks of life and all demographics tuning into these movies, and they want to see themselves reflected,” Oliver says. “That’s where I see the biggest change — and the most exciting change, too.”

As Hallmark looks toward the next 10 years and beyond, it has expanded the “Countdown to Christmas” franchise so it isn’t just about televised programming anymore. To inspire more interaction, Hallmark Channel sponsored the first-ever Christmas Con, which took place in New Jersey Nov. 8-10, and created the Hometown Christmas initiative to showcase everyday people and places around the country who get into the holiday spirit in unique ways.

“What we’ve built is a brand experience,” says Vicary. “We are part of the traditions that people experience this time of year, we are what people are talking about when they talk about entertainment and Christmas, and audiences don’t just like what we do, they thank us for it.”

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