By R.T. Watson
Two cable channels that have long dominated the holiday movie
genre are facing new competition from Netflix Inc., Walt Disney Co.
and Apple Inc., which are all aiming to carve out space in a
once-sleepy corner of the movie business.
Marathons of schmaltzy titles like "A Cookie Cutter Christmas"
and "Four Christmases and a Wedding" have become a successful
annual tradition for Hallmark Channel and Lifetime. This year, both
channels began playing such fare nonstop before Halloween.
Netflix began unveiling its holiday programming this month,
which will include six new Christmas movies, including "A Christmas
Prince: The Royal Baby," a new holiday television series and two
Christmas cooking-competition specials.
Disney's new Disney+, which launched Nov. 12 and offers
subscribers animated classics alongside Marvel and Star Wars
movies, hopes to entice new subscribers with its own holiday
offerings. The service has more than 20 Christmas movies, from
classics such as "Miracle on 34th Street" to a new title exclusive
to the service: "Noelle," a film starring Anna Kendrick that the
studio heavily promoted ahead of the Disney+ launch.
Netflix and Disney face an entrenched adversary in Hallmark
Channel, which nearly a decade ago sowed the seeds of
Christmas-movie binge watching.
"Others have seen what tremendous appetite there is for holiday
content, and we welcome the competition," said Bill Abbott, chief
executive of Hallmark Channel's parent company. "We're still in our
minds far and away the No. 1 holiday destination."
For the last three years Hallmark Channel was one of the
highest-rated basic-cable networks during the October-December
quarter, according to Mr. Abbott.
Hallmark's opening salvo this year included titles like
"Christmas Wishes & Mistletoe Kisses," a romantic tale
involving an interior designer and a billionaire. Lifetime has
unveiled offerings like "Christmas A La Mode" as part of its "It's
a Wonderful Lifetime" marathon.
Hallmark spends about 30% of its annual production budget on
Christmas movies, according to Mr. Abbott, who says these movies
generate roughly the same percentage of the network's revenue. The
company declined to disclose the size of its production budget.
Hallmark began stuffing its lineup with Christmas movies soon
after Mr. Abbott assumed command of the channel's parent company,
Crown Media Holdings Inc., in 2009. It was part of an effort to
focus the network's programming around the greeting-card company's
brand. Under Mr. Abbott, Hallmark and sister network Hallmark
Movies & Mysteries have ramped up to 40 new Christmas movies
this year, from five in 2010.
Lifetime, owned by A+E Networks, decided to get back into the
Christmas movie arms race in 2017 after spending years focused on
other fare such as reality TV, biographical movies and dramas drawn
from recent news headlines. It is broadcasting 30 new holiday
titles this year, nearly double the number in 2018.
"Lifetime is upping its game," said Karen Schaler, a
Christmas-movie writer who remembers when the network used to
dominate the holiday made-for-TV movie niche before taking a "dark
and twisty" turn.
Lifetime's prime-time ratings last December rose nearly 30% from
the same period the year before, according to the network. Nearly
doubling this year's Christmas movie slate has meant twice the
spending on poinsettias, wreaths, crackling fires, fake snow and
computer-generated cold breath, said Meghan Hooper, Lifetime's
executive in charge of holiday movies.
"We realized our audiences still want these movies," said Ms.
Hooper, adding that she and her staff now "joke a little bit about
the Christmas-movie wars."
When next year's holiday season kicks off, viewers will almost
certainly have even more Christmas content to choose from, with
Comcast Corp. launching its Peacock streaming service next April
and AT&T Inc.'s HBO Max making its debut in May. Both
companies' immense film libraries include scores of Christmas
Apple Inc. last month outbid rival Hollywood studios for the
chance to make a big-budget musical version of "A Christmas Carol,"
starring Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell, according to people
familiar with the matter. A few weeks later, Disney also made a
deal to produce a musical adaptation of the classic Christmas tale,
a different person said.
Hallmark and Lifetime film some of their movies over a couple of
weeks and said they spend between $1.5 million and $2.5 million on
each movie. By contrast, a major film from Disney, Netflix or
another big Hollywood company can take months to finish and cost
tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars.
In the U.S., streaming services last year experienced increased
traffic during November and December, according to research firm
SimilarWeb, which tracks Android mobile and desktop data. Disney's
Hulu experienced a nearly 30% rise in activity when compared with
the preceding months of the year.
Netflix saw a 6.3% increase during the same period. It beefed up
this year's slate of holiday content after movies like "The
Christmas Chronicles" and "A Christmas Prince" in recent years were
well-received by subscribers, a company spokesperson said. "The
Christmas Chronicles" attracted 20 million viewers its first week,
the company's content chief, Ted Sarandos, told a conference last
December. And while Netflix didn't provide viewing data for "A
Christmas Prince," it did order two sequels.
Netflix didn't see the advantage of running Hallmark-style
holiday movies at first, according to independent producer Brad
Krevoy, who has made movies for both companies. "It took a lot of
persuading," he said of his dealings with the streaming service
before it finally decided to move forward with "A Christmas
Prince," which Mr. Krevoy's company produced.
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
November 17, 2019 14:14 ET (19:14 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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