Behind the scenes of the ‘Christmas movie industrial complex’

For one writer, playing an extra gave her a glimpse of the “Santa’s workshop logic” behind the dozens of Christmas movies released yearly.

By Sean SaldanaDecember 12, 2022 3:21 pm, ,

With Christmas fewer than two weeks away, people all around the country are decorating trees, putting up wreaths, and preparing cups of hot chocolate as they get into the seasonal spirit. They’re also watching Christmas  movies.

Holiday-themed movies have become such an integral part of the cultural zeitgeist that more than a hundred will premiere this season alone, according to news writer Rebecca Alter. 

Alter is an expert in the Christmas movie genre who recently had the opportunity to be a part of one herself, playing a role as an extra in the film “Santa Bootcamp.”

She wrote about that experience – and the world of Christmas movies more broadly – for New York Magazine and joined the Texas Standard to talk about it. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: How did you end up on the other side of the camera after years of watching these Christmas movies? 

Rebecca Alter: Well, this is a genre that it feels like it’s such an inevitability every year they’re going to be on and in such huge numbers and they’re inescapable. You feel as though it’s Santa’s workshop logic, right? It’s like, “Oh, yeah, they just magically come to be.” But I wanted to know what that set was like. Are they made in a way that’s similar to other movies? How on earth did they get these all out so fast and in such a high amount? And how did they create Christmas year-round? Like as a job.

So in the spirit of R&D, you found yourself actually cast as an extra. Is that what happened?

Absolutely. I think that was sort of like I was doing a bit of a mole, except I kept telling everyone like exactly what I was doing there. So it wasn’t actually that undercover.

So the movie we’re talking about here is “Santa Bootcamp.” I believe this is part of the Lifetime Christmas lineup this year. 

Yes, it is. And this is, I feel, like one of their bigger ones because there’s always a whole slew – like dozens – that seem to be filmed in Canada. Like that is a whole separate industry up in Vancouver and Toronto – is filming these Lifetime and Hallmark movies. So when there’s one that’s actually filmed somewhere in the States and there’s a big sort of American star in it, that’s kind of a huge deal. 

Well, in your piece, you describe something called the “Christmas movie industrial complex,” which sounds like something Eisenhower might have warned us about. But I think this is a little different. What exactly is this “Christmas movie industrial complex” and how big an industry are we looking at?

I had a hard time getting actual numbers in terms of what the budgets are on these things. They like to be a little bit cagey about that and keep the Christmas magic alive, which you know what? Sure. But I do know for sure that these movies, you know, they don’t have the biggest budgets. They don’t have very long shooting schedules. They now have a little over two weeks to film these feature length movies months before they come out. And so it’s about these movies that, because the people have traditions surrounding the holidays and they expect something every season that meets their expectations but is still interesting. So it is about sort of delivering movies that are sort of consistent, that hit the same tropes that are reliably going to be programmed for like 30 days or 45 days that people could tune in to during the holidays. 

What you’re describing is almost like a kind of background noise that happens in homes as friends and family come over and you got the TVs on and it’s one of those movies, right?

Yeah, and I mean “background noise” as the highest praise because it’s about setting a scene, setting the ambiance and like a mood around the holidays. An executive at Lifetime told me that their sort of ideal vision of who is the archetypal Lifetime Christmas movie viewer, and it’s someone who, you know, the kids are coming home for the holidays. Maybe she’s writing Christmas cards or putting up decorations, or they’re all cooking together and the family’s over. So it is something that’s sort of meant to be integrated into your traditions rather than, you know, they’re not airing in a movie theater. You’re not expected to, like, have your phone off and the lights down while you’re watching.

Yeah, right. And these won’t be winning any big awards. But honestly, it sounds like you’re saying mom is the target for these movies. 

Absolutely: Mom. After I wrote this article about being in the movie, a great aunt reached out to me saying that she had already watched the movie three times and that she has these on in the background all season long. And we’re Jewish!

Oh, man, I love it. I have a sense that, with all of these movies being pumped out, there must be some kind of competition. Like Lifetime vs. the Hallmark Channel or something. I mean, is there sort of a race to come out with the most popular film lineup?

Oh, I think so. And you know, Hallmark, someone told me the other day, “I think of a Hallmark movie the way you say ‘Kleenex’ instead of ’tissue’ or ‘Band-Aid’ instead of ‘adhesive.’ It’s like the brand name that you use to sort of describe this whole genre. And so I guess by that definition, Lifetime would be the Pepsi to the Coca-Cola. But, you know, they’re really neck-and-neck. And now the big thing is the big streaming platforms are putting these out as well. And they don’t have to, I guess, adhere to necessarily the exact same rules that Lifetime and Hallmark do. And those are really the big buzzy ones like the Lindsay Lohan one this year. So many people I know watched that.

Well, what is it about the holiday movie, not just as a kind of a backing track to all that’s going on in a house. But I mean, people really do watch these – as much as we’re sort of poking fun at it. And I think, in part, that has to do with a kind of a pattern right there. You know, there seems to be a romantic interest in all of these nominally Christmas or holiday films.

Oh, yeah. Like they are about Christmas first, but they are sort of about these romances with pretty backdrops second or if not also first. And these things always have some beats they hit on, right? It’s always about a workaholic woman who never takes time for herself or for family or for romance or the holidays. And often she goes to a small town and she’s butting heads with some sort of rugged guy, often related to some sort of family business. There are so many struggling inns in this universe, like the inns are not doing well in these fictional universes, and they must be saved. And, you know, they butt heads and then they fall in love.

Yeah, take that, Charles Dickens. All right. Well, so having said all of that, do you have any Christmas movie recommendations for our audience this season or you want to stay clear of that?

Oh, yeah. I will very selfishly promote “Santa Bootcamp” – it has Rita Moreno in it. It’s excellent. It was so cool to watch her work. And I would also say any time Dolly Parton does one of these, which is at this point, every year, it’s always going to be a good time and have something musical in it. And I would also tell people that these movies are also getting more diverse now. And there are a lot with sort of same-sex romance plot lines now. And I would say, you could totally diversify your Christmas movie watching palette nowadays. 

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