Hallmark Channel Makes Content for Women, but Does It Allow Them to Create Enough of It?

TV Features Hallmark Channel
Hallmark Channel Makes Content for Women, but Does It Allow Them to Create Enough of It?

This Christmas, Hallmark Channel (and sister network Hallmark Movies & Mysteries) will premiere its annual Countdown to Christmas programming: In 2017, that means a whopping 21 original movies about the impending holiday season. All of them will star women; all of them will be viewed by women—last year’s record-breaking event saw ratings increase nearly 30 percent in women aged 18-49, and 22 percent in total viewers. But while there are notable exceptions, the films will still largely be made by men.

Statistically, much of Hallmark’s content is made by men. The network’s catalog of Christmas hits is majority man-made: An examination of the credits for each film aired during its mid-July “Christmas Keepsake Week” reveals that nearly 100 percent were directed by men, and the majority were written by men, too. (There were only three female directors on the entire schedule; one of them was Mariah Carey.)

The same goes for the network’s original series: When Calls the Heart, Chesapeake Shores, and the now-defunct Cedar Cove are all based on book series from female authors, but were brought to TV by mainly male EPs, directors and writers. The Good Witch, based on a popular Hallmark film series of the same name (created and directed by men), boasts plenty of female writers, but not a single female director in three seasons and three Halloween specials.

When Calls the Heart has had just three women-directed episodes out of the 39 produced so far, with women writers faring better (they’re credited on 18 of the hours). Chesapeake Shores has had four women-directed episodes (out of 17 examined for this story), but 10 women-written ones. During its time on air, Cedar Cove did not have a single female director in 36 episodes, though female writers were credited on 18 of them.

The statistics only tell part of the story, however. The network’s original movies, for example, are produced on a tight timeline with a tight budget. With such little room for deviation, it’s made sense in the past to hire experienced staff behind-the-scenes—and considering the demographics of the film industry in general, those proven crew members are likely to be white men.

But those original movies also tend to star the same talent onscreen—and the network is now providing many of its female stars (or “family,” in Hallmark parlance) with the opportunity to produce films of their own. While not an official mandate, both the network and one of its most prominent female hit-makers say that Hallmark is actively courting women to produce, write and direct films and TV series.

“We pride ourselves on how our programming is created, written, developed and produced by women that connect with all of our viewers, Michelle Vicary, Crown Media’s executive vice president of programming and publicity, said in a statement to Paste. “We are one of the leaders in television dedicated to empowering women and providing females the opportunity to thrive both on and off screen.”

Alison Sweeney, the former Days of Our Lives star-turned-director, novelist and The Biggest Loser host, began working with Hallmark in 2010. Almost immediately, network brass offered her the opportunity to produce her own films.

“They offered right from the beginning for me to bring them ideas. And so it kind of just happened organically,” Sweeney says.

Since then, she’s brought them scripts to develop and they’ve come to her with others. While she originally only signed on to star in the popular Murder She Baked series, she eventually became a producer on the project. In 2017, she executive produced her latest Hallmark Christmas movie, Christmas at Holly Lodge, which was written and directed by women (Melissa Salmons and Jem Garrard). Sweeney says it was important for her to champion a script written by a woman, and she specifically sought out a female director for the project.

“I met quite literally zero resistance,” she says. “I absolutely think it’s important right now to make sure that women are being equally hired and given that opportunity in this industry that has been so predominantly male.”

The nature of the beast means the network is more likely to hire experienced directors, who are more likely to be male, but it also means there’s room to give new talent that experience.

“They need new people because they need new content,” Sweeney says.

Fellow Hallmark star Candace Cameron Bure also executive produced her 2017 holiday movie, Switched for Christmas, which was written and directed by women. Ashley Williams is another star-turned-producer developing content for the network. Also in the works: a new movie series based on books by Nancy Grace and crisis manager Judy Smith (the inspiration for Scandal), and more films produced by and starring the singer Jewel as a crime-solving home renovator.

Still, unlike other networks, such as FX and NBC, there’s no mandated push at Hallmark for more female creators or crew members. But Sweeney says that the network doesn’t need one because it’s actively courting female-created work all the time.

“I’m working really hard and I think I produce good content and I deserve to be judged for the work that I do, and that’s what I love about Hallmark. It’s a level playing field. You just know that they’re coming in with honest intentions to make the best programming possible, and when you come into it from a female point of view, saying, ‘I know what these women want to watch because I want to watch it, I get it,’ and you put together a package, they take it for what it is and work with you. They just want to create good content and I love that they stick to what they know works for their audience,” she says.

Anecdotally, Hallmark is actively courting female-created projects. But there’s no denying that an official program could get massive results—and fast. FX CEO John Landgraf vowed in early 2016 to increase the number of women directors and directors of color on the network, and by the end of the year saw an increase from 12 percent in 2015 to 51 percent in 2016. The network also partnered with Ryan Murphy in 2016 to create the Half Foundation, a mentorship and hiring initiative for directors that aims to increase the number of women, people of color and members of the LGBT community working in Hollywood. By the end of its first year, Murphy had increased his own company’s slate of female directors by 60 percent.

Compare Hallmark’s efforts to get women behind the lens to those of Lifetime, which has dropped its “television for women” tagline: The network’s high-profile original dramas, unREAL and Mary Kills People, were created by women, as were the upcoming You and the now-defunct Army Wives, The Client List, and Witches of East End. Freeform’s biggest hit, Pretty Little Liars, was created by a woman. On OWN, Queen Sugar creator Ava DuVernay has famously championed a directorial roster comprised solely of women, many of them women of color.

In October, Hallmark launched a new network, Hallmark Drama, and the network announced in August that it’s also launching its own streaming service and a publishing division.

“The digital publishing business that we are launching we are viewing as a great way for us to find authors who maybe are a little less well known and yet have creative ideas for books that they would like to get published,” Crown Media Family Networks CEO Bill Abbott told Broadcasting & Cable this summer. “We’ll publish them under the Hallmark publishing banner…and then for the best of those we’ll turn those into movies.”

With more opportunities than ever to create content for the Hallmark brand, the network and its offshoots could be a haven for female creators—but only if it makes a concerted effort to include them in the conversation.

Jean Bentley is a Los Angeles-based entertainment reporter who has written for Marie Claire, The Hollywood Reporter, Rotten Tomatoes, Nerdist, E! News, Entertainment Weekly, and many other outlets. Her cat is named Olivia Benson. Find her on Twitter @hijean.

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