Hallmark movies are known for being extremely specific when it comes to content and theme. There’s most likely going to be a very clean-cut couple who will fall in love — probably during the holidays — and there will be snow and cheesy one-liners and dreams coming true left and right — and we’ll see all of it coming a mile away.
But isn’t predictability kind of a cardinal sin in storytelling? What kind of audience would spend two hours watching something so formulaic, right? A big one…we’re talking over 80 million viewers. According to the Hallmark fans I’ve spoken with, it’s because of that predictability that they tune in. They know what to expect.
With those kinds of numbers, clearly there’s plenty to be gleaned from Hallmark’s filmography. Let’s dig in and go over a few storytelling lessons that can be learned.
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Hallmark Movies Deliver Exactly What Viewers Expect
The viewer comes in with specific expectations you must deliver. That’s true of most genres, but in the case of Hallmark movies, audiences come in expecting to see a love story that is safe for families. No sex, no nudity, no strong language, no violence, no dirty jokes. It’s reassuring to get exactly what you want in a film every time.
That’s the lesson for screenwriters: deliver what the reader expects from your story.
There’s An Audience for Feel-Good Movies
If you are anything like me, you might be a little snarky and sarcastic. Those are two things Hallmark movies are not. But even someone like me likes to watch something that is just pure joy sometimes. And there are a lot of audience members who are not sarcastic at all. They consume feel-good movies like it’s nourishment.
The lesson to learn here is know your audience. Who are they and what do they want from those types of stories?
The Guaranteed Happy Ending is a Plus
Speaking of feel-good movies — guaranteed happy endings. They’re a big reason why a lot of adults consume Disney animation and other content for children. A happy ending is not always a guarantee when it comes to movies meant for adults, but at the end of any Hallmark movie, your protagonist will learn a valuable lesson about love and life and they will live happily ever after. In a world full of uncertainty, it can be nice to unwind and know nothing too bad will happen in that story.
What lesson can screenwriters learn from that? Make sure your protagonist also learns a valuable life lesson at the end of your screenplay. And even if you aren’t writing a feel-good movie, make sure your ending is satisfying. Consider audience expectations, too. Ask yourself what audiences expect from the genre of film you are writing and how you can deliver exactly that.
Christmas is Powerful
It’s no wonder so many Hallmark films are centered around Christmas. All of us have memories of the holiday season, traditions, echoes of our childhood, and very specific feelings around the music, the decorations, and the lights. Featuring the holidays in your story will bring some kind of an emotional reaction out of the viewer — a little holiday cheer and magic that is unique to the season.
The lesson screenwriters can learn from this is setting your film around a holiday, whether or not it’s Christmas, is a good idea. The viewer will come in with their emotional baggage and will most likely engage with the story right away.
Julia Camara is an award-winning Brazilian screenwriter/filmmaker. Julia won a Telly Award for the sci-fi found footage feature Occupants. Julia’s feature directorial debut In Transit, won Best Experimental Film at four different festivals. Julia’s other writing credits include Area Q and Open Road.