The concept of the Hallmark Christmas movie technically predates the Hallmark Channel, and has since expanded far outside it. The cable network then known as Odyssey aired its first original holiday film in 2000, just before rebranding as Hallmark in 2001. Ten years later, Hallmark introduced its “Countdown to Christmas” event, which now spans a full sixth of the year, from late October to the holiday itself. In 2013, Hallmark started upping its production, starting with a dozen new movies a year and almost quadrupling its output to a full 40 in 2019. Not to be outdone, Lifetime’s “It’s a Wonderful Lifetime” now clocks in at 30 snackable doses of holiday cheer, turning a heady blend of rom-com cliché, seasonal flourishes, and Z-list celebrity into a veritable arms race.
And where there’s an arms race, Netflix is sure to throw itself into contention.
The streaming service has famously built its name on rejecting the specificity of premium cable outlets like HBO, or even less-premium cable outlets like Hallmark. Rather than market itself to a consumer base passionate enough about gritty crime dramas or scripted meet-cutes to reliably spend a few extra dollars a month, Netflix has spent billions on the unspoken guarantee that whatever you’re looking for, it has an in-house version—maybe not the best or most comprehensive version, but a conveniently accessible one. Netflix itself may be a mega-brand, though it’s more accurately understood as a collection of smaller brands, creating a facsimile of channel-surfing without ever leaving that eternal, scrolling grid. It’s CBS, and the CW, and Comedy Central, and the Criterion Collection. And now, for a few months, it’s also Hallmark.
Starting with Holiday in the Wild, released November 1, and culminating with A Christmas Prince: The Royal Baby, set to land December 5, Netflix will release a total of seven festive offerings, ranging from a teen comedy (Let It Snow) to an animated fairy tale (Klaus). And that’s not even counting special holiday editions of preexisting Netflix properties like Nailed It!, The Great British Baking Show, and Alexa & Katie, now joining the ranks of scripted shows like BoJack Horseman and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina in releasing an off-season Christmas bonus. That’s still just a drop in the bucket compared with the Hallmark and Lifetime deluge, but if the past half-decade is any indication, Netflix never stays in the moderation business for long.
This newest crop of Netflix Christmas content builds on a string of viral hits that quickly made a name for Netflix as a destination for proudly campy, eminently disposable romps with a red-and-green color scheme. The Royal Baby rounds out the Christmas Prince trilogy, which began in 2017 with the timeless tale of an unlucky-in-love journalist falling in love with her subject, who is also the prince of Aldovia. (Presumably, it’s right next door to Genovia.) A Christmas Prince became an early example of Netflix’s arbitrary, slightly creepy habit of occasionally letting us inside the panopticon when its official Twitter account revealed 53 users had watched it daily for 18 days. Ethics aside, the tweet simply confirmed what weeks of social media activity already implied: This thing was popular.
There’s also The Princess Switch, starring Vanessa Hudgens in a Prince and the Pauper story with more holes than an advent calendar. And The Christmas Chronicles, starring Kurt Russell as Santa and Chloe from Big Little Lies as a kid with no DJ skills but just as much precocity. And all the acquired titles Netflix has rented out to fill up space that will inevitably be occupied by future in-house productions. Just type “holiday” into the search bar and witness a laundry list of “real movie or half-hearted Photoshop?” prompts: Christmas With a View, Christmas Wedding Planner, Christmas in the Heartland. However much spare time you have posted up on your parents’ couch, Netflix has enough viewing fodder to fill it.
The deliberately cheesy holiday movie is a natural fit for the platform, catering to several of its well-established strengths. Netflix discovered long ago that its on-demand structure creates essentially an opposite set of scheduling incentives from a linear broadcast. Where conventional networks typically cater to weeknight routine and avoid aberrations like summer vacations and winter breaks, streaming thrives in users’ downtime, and their need to fill it with a steady stream of entertainment. True crime series Making a Murderer became an early slow-burn hit over the holidays in 2015; four years later, the second season of You will arrive the day after Christmas, when millions will be dozing off food hangovers and looking for an excuse to avoid the family they’ve already spent plenty of time with. It was only a matter of time before Netflix graduated from merely syncing itself up with holiday lulls to explicitly invoking the spirit of the season.
As a microgenre, the Netflix Christmas movie is a close cousin of the Netflix rom-com; in fact, last year’s jam-packed “summer of love” is merely a time-shifted version of an identical strategy. Teen sensation The Kissing Booth is exactly as absurd an artifact as The Princess Switch, while Someone Great offers the same formulaic pleasures as Let It Snow. But where the romantic comedy started at the multiplex and migrated to home viewing only after changes in the film industry threatened its extinction, the featherweight Christmas flick started as what the Netflix-ified rom-com has become: a made-for-TV movie.
The Christmas-industrial complex also offers another expansion opportunity for Netflix’s ever-churning star system, which efficiently conveyor-belts popular performers from one medium (sitcom, stand-up special, teen soap) to another (rom-com, drama, another rom-com) within the streaming service’s already expansive bounds. Let It Snow is led by Kiernan Shipka, already familiar to subscribers in the title role of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina; The Knight Before Christmas, a sort of reverse Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court with sleds, costars Vanessa Hudgens, also of The Princess Switch. Netflix gets fuel for its recommendation algorithm, smoothly guiding customers from one vehicle to the next. Stars can continue to build a relationship with their audience year-round. Viewers get more to fill the hours before real life starts up again. It’s a win-win-win.
Not that anyone is thinking much about this when they’re pressing Play, because Netflix’s Christmas movies never forget to fulfill their primary purpose: providing brainless, minimally taxing fun for when you’re emotionally and physically depleted from a week’s worth of small talk and petty drama. I have a preexisting condition known as “Judaism” that keeps me from fully investing in saccharine stories about the true meaning of Christmas, but even I can understand the appeal of a fictional European monarch falling in love with the star of iZombie for three movies on end. The rest of us may take some time to rest before the new year, but Netflix never sleeps.