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I've seen a few Hallmark Christmas movies, specifically the kind that come in those 4-for-1 boxes that get sold around the holidays. What shocks me every year is how consistent the movies are despite not obviously sharing any crew members.

The directors, lead producers, actors, and obvious camera operators are all different between the movies, and yet they all share a ton of broad similarities. Very similar music cues, lighting, cinematography, stories, character quirks, and an incredible ability to be completely and totally inoffensive at all times across dozens of movies.

From what I can tell from some IMDB surfing, many directors appear to be low-to-mid made-for-TV directors that get contracted for multiple Hallmark movies at a time. Graeme Campbell, for example, has four Hallmark movies to her credit from 2013 to 2016 after working almost exclusively on television murder mysteries. Ron Oliver has spurts of a few Hallmark movies punctuated by direct-to-video sequels to 90's comedies. Peter Sullivan seems to waffle between Hallmark contracts and cheap horror movies and teen skin flicks. I've had the pleasure of watching Broadcasting Christmas, you would never expect it came from the same guy in charge of High School Posession and Cucuy: The Boogeyman.

Same basic (lack of a) pattern seems to manifest for the camera operators, writers, and producers.

How do these movies end up coming out so similar? I presume there's some kind of studio input that prevents things from going too far off the rails, but given that the movies are similar even down to their basic plot structure, there must be way more control over the projects than just the usual Hollywood rewrites.

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I'm going to drop this into the answer space as a temporary space-filler rather than as a final product. I don't have the time to fully flesh it at the moment, so it's open season for anyone who wants to fill this answer, or just go for it and write your own.

I can't answer for this franchise specifically, but many many TV shows use a similar 'look book', a house-style that is not to be broken. Few shows these days have a 'one director for the duration' policy; they instead have a rule book and more importantly a show-runner to oversee the overall look & feel.

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    This is what I was expecting, and I'd like to accept this when it gets filled in. I'm curious how this usually gets done, if not in Hallmark's specific case, in general. Like, does the director get a checklist that says "Main cast MUST be white, age 21 - 30, Santa MUST appear at least once, friend has to be one (1) minority actor from attached list 2-a", or does the director just get handed a script and they're just hired because they know how to work on a set? – GGMG-he-him Mar 16 at 13:54
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    @GGMG-he-him Vox has an interesting article on how Hallmark Xmas movies are made. It doesn't mention a literal book, but the company is quite "hands-on", making sure all movies fit its style. – Wasabi Mar 16 at 14:10
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I want to add this as input, but not as a final answer. I don't know anything about what Hallmark's internal policies might be. But, part of the reason this happens is because "Christmas movie" is such a narrow genre. It's like shooting a zombie movie, there's really not too many directions to take it and run.

If you watch almost any Christmas movie, it will have their characters experiencing the "magic of Christmas" in some way. Possibly a love story intermixed in there. You have extremely common tropes, such as:

  • The scrooge - the character who HATES Christmas, until (event) when he practically becomes St. Nick.
  • A scene about setting up the Christmas tree, hanging lights, etc.
  • Some adversity that will cancel Christmas, which might be resolved by some "Christmas miracle"
  • The character who is WAY over-enthusiastic about Christmas. This is the opposite of the "scrooge" troupe. Think: Elf

In all of this you wind up with very common framing for some of the shots. Generalizing, you wind up with outdoor shots of a house covered in lights and snow. Shots of a decorated tree, usually with a fireplace for some reason. Scenes of a family eating Christmas dinner (that one varies depending on the 'type' of Christmas movie).

So, there very well may be a tight handbook that Hallmark specifically has to follow. But the genre itself is very prone to repetition.

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  • "Some adversity that will cancel Christmas" or otherwise 'lessen' the experience, think Home Alone. – Mast Mar 16 at 15:13
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    "It's like shooting a zombie movie, there's really not too many directions to take it and run." Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, iZombie, The Santa Clarita Diet, City of the Dead, Z Nation, Black Summer, The Walking Dead, Return of The Living Dead, Aaah! Zombies!! , Warm Bodies. – Acccumulation Mar 16 at 18:26
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    Where does Die Hard fit? – Dave Mar 16 at 19:19
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    @Dave In the 'some adversity may cancel Christmas' subgenre. Bonus that the adversity brings mom and dad back together again. Obviously, though, it's a mashup with the Sgt. Powell cop story, ending with his discovery of the redemptive power of violence. – lly Mar 17 at 17:31
  • You forgot that it starts snowing in the finale (without causing traffic accidents) – Hagen von Eitzen Mar 18 at 17:51
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In addition to tetsujin's answer, I'ld like to give an idea of those style guides. These are given to different teams involved in the creation process to allow for consistency of viewer experience.

Here is an example of the "look book" for King of the Hill. This allows for a wide variety of animation teams to be brought on as needed, while still giving the exact same King of the Hill experience to viewers every time.

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I will focus on technology.
Those movies look so similar because they are made for specific "target". Hallmark might (and probably is) using a set type of camera filters. To make a cookie-cutter film you need to make a cutter. One of the requirment is pipeling the production time and effinency. So now an editor will have a set of presets for color, balance, light corrections. And they will make all movies look similar.
On-set lighting. As you might notice all morning/breakfast shows have similar lighting. And all of them use "old type" big cameras (with a rigs or handhelds as novelty). The light are set in particular way for those cameras. They enforce the amount of light that is needed.
It also cut extra time (and people, no gaffer needed) who normally would work on lighting (for more of that please refer to this instructions and explanation Vanity Fair what Gaffer do ).

So instead of having A star with different script, scenery, mood or even genre of movie you just swipe the star in well establish place and you can roll.

I don't know how many movies (other than Christmas) Hallmark produce each year but just a quick look at their Christmas portfolio show a gigantic amount of money they need to spend. Cutting down the cost and speeding up the production (while maintaining same level of quality) require some pre-existing processes to be created and enforced.

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  • Really interesting/great point about using set camera filters, which then makes it easier for the editor, etc. Never really considered how reusing the same cameras/filters/lighting/etc affects much more than the shot itself and the obvious factors. – BruceWayne Mar 17 at 22:38
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There's an old musical equivalent to this called a "Sonata Factory". Basically, you write and publish a piano sonata (can work for other instrumentations, but let's just stick to that for simplicity), then you take that sonata, and rewrite a new part for the right hand to go with its left hand part, and then rewrite a new part for the left hand to go with your rewritten right hand part, maybe transpose the whole thing to a different key, publish that, and repeat. (You only publish every other piece or it would be obvious that 2 sonatas share the same part on one hand.) What you wind up with is a whole bunch of piano sonatas that are all the same length and have the same general structure and feel, but are superficially different.

The same model can be applied to movies, particularly movies in as narrowly defined a genre as "Hallmark Christmas movies". You get one, change all the characters but leave the plot the same, then change the plot points but leave the characters, rewrite all the dialogue to fit your new characters and plot, film it, distribute it, and repeat. Many of the other aspects won't change, the setting tends to be the same from one Christmas movie to the next, the basic message of the movie never changes. The audience isn't looking for anything groundbreaking with these movies. They're looking for something familiar and nostalgic, so you can get away with reusing the same elements over and over again, and it's much easier and cheaper than coming up with something truly original every time. Given the limited amount of time they have to make these films (people expect a half a dozen new films to be released every year), it's not surprising that the filmmakers would take shortcuts to churn them out in time for the holiday season.

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  • Interesting concept, but is there any evidence that these movies are made with a similar process of making compartmentalized, iterative changes to an original source movie? Given the relatively limited range of genre-appropriate themes and Hallmark-appropriate moods, it wouldn't be surprising to make an entirely novel Hallmark Christmas movie that appears pretty similar to the others. – Nuclear Wang Mar 16 at 14:20
  • @NuclearWang I don't know that anyone here can speak for how Hallmark specifically actually does it, but this sort of thing is fairly common in the movie/TV pitching process. The difference between the original pitch and what ultimately gets filmed can be dramatically different. (This was shown in a comical way in the TV show "Episodes", where a show from the UK is adapted for a US audience, and small iterative changes result in a show that is unrecognizable from its original source. Exaggerated comedy of course, but definitely has some basis in truth.) – Darrel Hoffman Mar 16 at 14:46

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