Is a Hallmark Cinematic Universe the key to diversifying the channel's holiday movies?

By creating a sprawling world in which characters from different films interact, the network might be able to make its holiday offering more inclusive.

A still of a couple standing close and smiling at each other from Hallmark channel's "Christmas in E...
Courtesy of YouTube/Hallmark Channel
ByAmanda Prahl

Hallmark has long dominated the cheesy Christmas movie niche, producing dozens upon dozens of pleasant — if often forgettable — made-for-TV romances every year. But that oversaturation is starting to dilute their appeal, especially considering they’re no longer the only game in town. Streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu have been building their own romance movie catalogs to compete — and they’ve been branching out with more inclusivity, something Hallmark historically hasn’t done such a great job with. But it does seem like the notoriously conservative network is taking cues from its competitors, particularly when it comes to creating “extended universes” of intertwined Hallmark romance movies. The Hallmark Cinematic Universe, if you will, has a reputation for repeatedly casting from the same pool of actors, which certainly can help viewers feel more connected to the network. But as that pool becomes more diverse and those actors start showing up as the same characters in multiple films, there’s something even more appealing about it —because it’s not just about seeing people who look like you, but communities that look like yours. That’s something the romance novel world perfected long ago.

If you’re hooked on Bridgerton, you already have a sense of what an extended cinematic universe looks like. Each season of the show — which was adapted from Julia Quinn’s bestselling book series — will center a different sibling’s love story, while still keeping other characters in the mix. Romance authors often write such series that, rather than following one primary story over several books, focus on a different couple each book — while everyone remains connected. In this way, the sister of the first book’s protagonist might be the heroine in the second book, and the third book might pair up the first protagonist’s grumpy co-worker with the second protagonist’s quirky cousin, and so on. While this is common among romance novels — authors like Talia Hibbert, Jasmine Guillory, and more, have written series using a similar formula — it can also be found outside of the genre. Take the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Iron Man’s last solo movie was in 2013, but the character continued to appear in Marvel movies for seven more years.

“There's something incredibly comforting and addicting about continuity within a franchise; after all, that's why people have flocked to the Marvel Cinematic Universe for well over a decade now in droves!” Lily Herman, writer and co-host of the romance-centric Friends to Lovers podcast, tells Mic. “If you love a particular romance author and the fictional world that person has created, it's so exciting to know that you get to read more of those characters and know the exact tone and type of storytelling you're going to get well in advance.”

“There's something incredibly comforting and addicting about continuity within a franchise.”

Hallmark is already testing the waters of this kind of extended storytelling, turning a few of their popular movies — like The Christmas House, A Gift to Remember, and The Nine Lives of Christmas — into series with straightforward sequels. And then there’s Christmas in Evergreen, the closest Hallmark has come to a true, interconnected universe of movies. The four-movie series features interlinked romances all set in the same small town. The romantic leads from previous movies appear as minor or supporting characters in the later entries, while the supporting characters from the earlier movies take the spotlight later on. Perhaps not coincidentally, they’ve also been adapted into actual romance novels by Hallmark Publishing.

These extended universes provide a sense of authenticity to an otherwise schmaltzy film roster. It creates a sense of its characters as people, not plot devices, which in turn gives the universe a feeling of warmth — and not “greeting card” warmth based on calculated cliches, but the warmth you feel from familiarity and investment in a story. That doesn’t mean doing away with the happily ever after, the single most important element in a cheesy romance story. After all, that assured happy ending is a huge part of Hallmark Christmas movies’ appeal. These movies are easy and comforting; who doesn’t want to curl up with a little escapism filled with hilariously quirky jobs, fanciful tropes, and picture-perfect scenery? But if the characters we watch are part of a larger interconnected universe and tethered to some level of reality, it makes it that much easier (and more satisfying) to get lost in them.

More importantly, that more realistic universe can serve as a vehicle for better representation among the casts. Let’s be honest: Many of us who otherwise love Hallmark-esque cable romance movies also struggle with their frequently limited worldview. In this world, blood family is the most important thing, careers get in the way of “what really matters,” and small towns are the real “heart” of the most important values. There are exceptions, to be sure (a personal favorite of mine is Christmas at the Plaza, which eschews the usual small-town setting for New York City’s famed Plaza Hotel), but the pattern is there and incredibly frustrating.

“Cable television shows feel that they are primarily serving the conservative, middle aged, midwestern mom-type,” Mackenzie Newcomb, founder of the Bad Bitch Book Club and co-host of Friends to Lovers, tells Mic. “Beyond that, they assume that those women could never enjoy watching someone fall in love that doesn’t resemble a younger version of themselves. Hallmark in particular used to be a Christian network in an official capacity, and it still seems to hold onto those roots from a branding perspective. It just means that people who are looking for diverse stories will look elsewhere, like Netflix, to find them (not that they have many options there, either).”

Streamers like Netflix and Hulu seem to be making an attempt at offering more diverse stories within the comforting romance movie niche. Hulu’s Happiest Season and Netflix’s Single All the Way both feature queer love stories (and the latter depicts a gay Black man as one of its romantic leads); and one of Netflix’s most popular movie franchises, The Princess Switch, stars Filipina-American actress Vanessa Hudgens as its lead character(s). It might not be earth-shattering, but these streamers are inching forward, perhaps helping to push their competitors forward, too.

“Traditional television is notoriously slow to change its formula for fear of alienating its core audience (even though, in many cases, that audience is shrinking over time),” Herman says. “It also doesn't help that many of the executives and decision-makers behind these massive franchises (like Hallmark's holiday movie juggernaut) also often look like the audiences they serve and not the country at large.”

Prior to August 2020, Hallmark’s parent company, Crown Media, was led by CEO Bill Abbott — who has since left the network to relaunch GAC, a competitor channel whose marketing unsubtly focuses on words like “safe” “traditional” and “American heritage” (and whose other investors are heavily involved in right wing media). But the new Hallmark CEO, Wonya Lucas — a Black woman — has assembled a team focused on creating media that is truly inclusive.

“People want new stories; they want to see people of every size, gender, ethnicity, and ability fall in love.”

There is nothing inherently wrong with these stories or with enjoying them, except that they’ve historically been almost the only ones told. Why can’t cozy, heartfelt, easy-to-watch romances also be for people in cities; people who have relationships that can’t be solved in 90 minutes; people who live in vibrant communities that aren’t predominantly white, straight, cis, traditional, and Christian-coded?

They absolutely should be. In the last year or two, the holiday TV-movie industry has slowly made inroads — Hallmark’s 2021 holiday slate is somewhat more inclusive than years past; 2020 saw the network’s first queer Christmas film; and the fourth Christmas in Evergreen installment finally centered that extended universe’s Black characters, rather than keeping them as minor players — but there’s still plenty of room to grow. “How do we attract more of these different types of people? What are the things we need to do? What are the stories we need to tell to go deeper than just seeing themselves?... We are the kind of brand that everybody should want to watch,” Lucas told The Hollywood Reporter in February 2021.

“People want new stories; they want to see people of every size, gender, ethnicity, and ability fall in love,” Newcomb says. Audiences of all demographics can and do enjoy stories about all demographics; decision-makers need to have faith in their communities and in the appeal of the happily ever after, however it looks. They need only look to the romance book world to see the proof.

“Thanks to a lot of advocacy from romance readers, individual publishers are starting to really see the benefit of creating a richer slate of romance novels that showcase a wide variety of experiences,” Herman says. “Moreover, the success of a number of romances by and about underrepresented groups has meant a push for more of those types of books.” Writers of color like Jasmine Guillory, Sara Desai, Helen Hoang, Talia Hibbert, and Courtney Milan have become some of romance’s most beloved names; queer stories from Casey McQuiston, Alexis Hall, and Alyssa Cole are staples on the front shelves of bookstore everywhere. These bestsellers — many of which are intersectional, too — are proof positive of the enormous appeal that a more diverse romance slate has.

These Hallmark Cinematic Universe films, taking a cue from romance novels (many of the aforementioned authors write multiple books set in the same connected worlds), could build more vibrant fictional universes and broader, interlinked stories that better reflect reality and represent our actual communities. Hallmark has long been behind the ball when it comes to representation, and this is their chance to catch up and get it right — without compromising their movies’ core appeal.

Following the romance novel formula doesn’t even mean taking Hallmark movies out of their G-to-PG territory. After all, there are plenty of steam-free romance novels. It’s about developing characters and a world that feels lived-in, rather than staged like a beautiful Christmas store display window — with a happily ever after, to boot.