Well, Thanksgiving is not quite here, but we’re already into November, so…you know what that means? Tis the season for Cheesy Romantic Christmas movies! Today, November 2, the first new one of the season popped up on my Netflix account, boasting the crazy magical cupid-like hijinks of none other than, that’s right, an advent calendar. It’s not just angels, santas and mystical animals bringing you Holiday romance anymore. It’s now inanimate calendars too! I've been watching these types of movies for years, and have learned, as similar as they may be, it never hurts to add another 25-50 new Hallmark-Channel inspired Christmas movies to the season (I say Hallmark Channel, for those old enough to know that term, but it’s not just the Hallmark; the digital services have the format down pat.)! So here I give you 10 easy steps on how to write your own Cheesy Romantic Christmas movie. And who knows, if you follow these guidelines, maybe your screenplay will be produced in the next Netflix line-up of Holiday-themed romances! Write away!
10 Steps for Writing a Cheesy Romantic Hallmark-Inspired Christmas Movie
Step 1: Pick a female lead.
Now, this is top of my list, because female actors (and theatre artists, in general) are vastly underrepresented in films and plays, usually only making up about 1/3 of protagonists in films. So write this part for a woman! Statistics show that movies and plays with female leads tend to do better at the box office (or in this case computer/tv screen) anyway). Occasionally, you’ll have a male lead, but in this one genre of media, my informal research shows women actually have over 50%!
Step 2: Give your leading lady a high-stress career, preferably in media.
You can choose such careers as: radio dj, real estate agent, photographer, lawyer, but you get especially big points for a news reporter or journalist. Think of what she can uncover!
Step 3: Make your leading lady hate (or conversely, obsess over) Christmas.
You might have her get swept up in the holiday season (only to learn later what it's truly about), but you'll have more success if she hates Christmas. Make her jaded. Don’t worry; she'll still be pretty and likeable, because the reason for her jadedness is so sad (see Step 4), but we love to see her start off on the selfish side. The "better to [Christmas] see her with!"
Step 4: Give her, or her leading man, a reason to hate Christmas.
This is best achieved by revealing a traumatic event which occurred on Christmas (hence we can sympathize with her hate of it now). Events to choose from include:
a) your lady's husband abandoning her and her child on Christmas day
b) your lady's father abandoning the family when she was a child
c) your lady discovering her partner was cheating on her
d) a broken engagement, or even
e) a death or murder.
*If you choose E, consider involving ghosts or day-repeating (think 1993 Groundhog's Day) in your screenplay!
Step 5: Send your leading lady to a small town.
This is crucial. Your leading character must almost always be from a large city and she or he must be sent to a small town. This is imperative in learning the true meaning of Christmas, as the secret is almost always stored in small towns (with the rare occurrence of the meaning of Christmas being hidden in a city like New York or LA). The North Pole counts, as does a prince's castle in some made-up country, but a simple middle-of-america small town will do just fine. You don't need to be fancy or creative here. But keep in mind, in a small town, everyone knows each other, and they are almost always kind-hearted, although they can have strong opinions about the city-dwellers who come to visit (or get stuck in a snowstorm there).
*Bonus points for coming up with a quirky, but endearing, small-town holiday tradition (which your lady character probably won’t want to participate in, at first, but a small lonely or poor child might guide her to embrace toward your closing scene).
Step 6: When your leading character is sent to a small town, it must be against his or her will.
How can she learn the true meaning of Christmas if she is WILLING to find it in a small town? A few common reasons why your leading character could be forced to spend the Christmas season in a small town are:
a) He is being punished for poor work behavior and sent to another office in a small town
b) She must deliver or perform something important in order to get a promotion
c) She must investigate something having to do with Christmas (remember, being a reporter is a great role for your main character)
d) She must return to see family.
e) Her plane crashes or car breaks down while she is on her way to another destination (such as a corporate retreat or fancy vacation in the Caribbean), and she must detour in a small town along the way.
Step 7: Involve some sort of hidden personality.
This might be a reporter posing as a private tutor to gain access to private information, it might be a rich woman trying to pretend she's poor, it might be a hired man pretending to be a fiance of a woman he doesn't know, it might be the real santa passing for an everyday Nick. Whatever you choose, this is important, as is the moment of reveal, since this often puts the budding romance in jeopardy. What true love can be built upon a lie? Well, 100% of them can be, in the spirit of Christmas and forgiveness (see Step 10)!
Step 8: Make sure your leading character is closed off to true love at the start.
She might be in a relationship, even perhaps engaged, but if he doesn't love Christmas the way she is meant to, then you know it cannot work. She needs to meet that special someone in the small town in order for her heart to be opened, to cut off the bad relationship, and fall in love with the prince or ghost or dog walker with dyslexia. Remember also that it is okay if your main character hates her love interest at first (even if he's actually being nice to her). In fact, this is preferable and almost necessary. True love will conquer hate and allow her to see the kindness that lies underneath.
Step 9: Choose a grand misunderstanding.
This may be the identity reveal, it may be a comforting hug which looks like an affair, it may be a lie that was told in order to protect--have fun with this! This is your big crisis when that newly opened heart is crushed to the floor and the ice wall builds again. But, don't worry! Because...
Step 10: Allow forgiveness and love to rule!
Yes, we all need to forgive someone. Maybe your leading lady needs to forgive herself for a past mistake, maybe her father for leaving her family at Christmas, maybe this rugged man who lied to her because he, too, was scared to let love in (or because it wasn't the right time to reveal he was Santa!). Whatever your misunderstanding, whatever the hate and challenge, this is a big moment for our lady! She forgives and/or lets go, and can finally see what her priorities are. This often will involve her taking the risk to choose her new love or family over her amazing city job. Her bosses won't understand, her best friend may or may not understand, but she will choose love, at any cost. And chances are, once she prioritizes that—then her job, her house, her financial uncertainties—they will all fall into place. That is, after all, the magic of a Christmas movie!
Your screenplay is written! Yay! Wasn't that easy?
Once you have your script complete, congratulations! You have a hit which will be watched solidly for one whole month every year! Now, to add a little something special to your movie, consider these bonus tips for your next draft and production:
4 Bonus Tips for Writing a Cheesy Romantic Christmas Movie:
1) Keep it funny, but not too funny! Having a deck of "one-liners" like..."a thank-you will do," will come in handy. But beware of making it too funny. We don't want to actually laugh out loud at anything. We only want to get the hint that we are supposed to think the movie is funny. Nothing more. This is its cringe-worthy charm.
2) Feel free to add some magic to your movie! Meaningful objects appearing from nowhere, time travel, angels and ghosts--the snowy sky is the limit! Just make sure to have some jingle bell sound effects when it happens, so your audience knows for sure their eyes should be widening with wonder!
3) Stylize your actors' acting. Even if you have a talented cast, don't let them act as well as they normally would in a different film. That's not what we want in a Cheesy Christmas Romance. We want slightly stilted acting. If your film is too Hollywood or Indie produced, then it will forsake the genre of Cheesy Christmas Movie and move on to movie-theatre ready (Think Love Actually. That film stands on its own as an intelligent and poignant romantic comedy effective on the Big Screen. That is not what we are writing here!). Remember, we only want these Hallmark-inspired films to stay on the internet/tv.
4) Make it Christmassy! You can scrimp your budget anywhere (actors, directors, writers) but never scrimp on Christmas design! Start your movie with Christmas music and lights, and keep 'em coming throughout the rest of your show. Because without the lights and music, this might be interpreted as a bad romantic comedy. And we all know, it is nothing of the sort! This is that rare precious genre of movie that comes out but once a year. It's the kind of movie you can wrap presents to while only half-watching, the kind of movie you can watch with your friends while playing a drinking (eggnog) game, the kind of movie you want to rate 1 star, but give it 3 stars because, well, it's a Christmas movie and you were mildly entertained, so that is worth something. Because after watching one, no matter how you feel about what you just saw, you still have about 20 more days before Christmas...to keep watching more and more and more. You want to be Day 12 of your audience’s Cheesy Christmas Movie Watching (magical?) Calendar! And I, for one, am looking forward to the season.
Happy Writing! And I look forward to seeing your Cheesy Romantic Christmas movie next year on Amazon Prime! And now, you know what I need to do, right? Cozy up with some Trader Joe’s holiday cookies and find out how this ancient advent calendar saves one sad Christmas soul, in a movie Vox calls, “Aggressively bland.”