Question: When is the best time (and the worst time) to start writing a Christmas script? Right after Christmas! It’s the best, because you’re most inspired, both by the season and by the dozens of Christmas movies that crowd the theaters and streaming platforms. (What? Did they really make a Christmas movie out of a Duff Goldman “Bake-Off”?) It’s the worst time because you now have all of these formulaic plots in your head that you may accidentally copy, in your quest for the perfect original idea.
Seriously, there is no best time to write a Christmas script except that time when the idea comes to you. Even then, you may find that you’re writing well into the next few months, perhaps even the next few years if you’re the meticulous sort. The question that naturally follows is “When should I shop my Christmas script around?”
Well now, that is indeed a difficult question. To answer that question, we will limit our discussion to made-for-TV movies, because the vast majority of Christmas movies that are made will appear on either Hallmark or Lifetime, or on a major streaming platform like Netflix and Hulu. Putting our filmmaker hats on, we can estimate the time it takes to actually shoot, edit, and market such a film as…anywhere from six months to two years. It is, after all, just a script. It is the bare bones of a movie that has not yet been fleshed out, much less clothed. The streaming platforms have become very good at turning around high quality movies in a short amount of time because they cut their production teeth on 1-hour episodic shows that would take the average movie studio years to shoot.
So we have not nailed down the target timeline either, except to extrapolate that it really doesn’t matter. And we would be right about that. “Script-to-screen” is more or less a linear process. The veil of development does not make it any less linear. So starting your script as soon as you conceive of the idea, and finishing the script just as soon as you’ve come upon perfection, is a good enough timeline to follow.
What we really need to know is when Christmas scripts become “fashionable” to the industry. That would determine the sweet spot for new scripts. The good news is that Christmas scripts never go out of vogue. They are one of the few constants in the world of genres. There will always be someone in the market for a fresh Christmas script, 365 days a year. What changes are the basic criteria that every such script must follow. These are long established Hallmark and Lifetime criteria. We can only be thankful that these two channels have provided some guide rails for us flighty screenwriters to run between. However, with the likes of Netflix, Amazon, and (gulp!) HGTV joining the foray, anything goes. Well no, not really. Not everything. But more things. For instance…
Family. It would be nearly impossible to write a made-for-TV Christmas movie without a family in the center of it all. There’s no disputing that Christmas is about family. If everyone led a solitary existence then there wouldn’t be much thought put into Christmas. Too much of it revolves around the gathering of family in some form or another. Even loss is followed by a new discovery, a new relationship, a new reason to pick up the pieces and start over — or a rekindling of the flame that was lost in the first place.
Magic is a mainstay of Christmas. If there is nothing magical going on, then it makes for a poor substitute for the fantastical Christmas that we dreamt of when we were children. If you can come up with something totally believable but that is still oddly and cleverly magical, then you may have yourself a truly unique screenplay that’s worth investing your efforts on. Otherwise, remember to include that magical element, but in a way that allows the audience to suspend their disbelief. A straight-forward way to do this is to create an atmosphere of fantasy from the get-go. Don’t spring an airborne sleigh ride on us if you haven’t already established that this story requires the use of your imagination.
Similarly, don’t introduce a biblical miracle in the third act if you haven’t already established a spiritual theme throughout. My very favorite Christmas movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life”, starts out with the collective voices of the people who love the main character (George Bailey), praying for his safety and deliverance. There’s no mincing words that this family film holds a lesson in the power of faith. Spirituality is a form of magic that touches different people in different ways. Your target platform (for instance, the Hallmark Channel) will have their own guidelines about this aspect of themes.
Family movies are for family viewing. Being kid-friendly is half the battle. Appeal to the older set can be achieved in nostalgic moments. Fond memories from the past are what keep families together in an otherwise turbulent present. Memories are often idealized at the cost of accuracy. Nostalgic stories, both real and made up, are a panacea for present day woes. One movie that I make a point of not watching every year is “A Christmas Story”. It’s the epitome of 40’s nostalgia and everyone (except me) seems to love it. I wasn’t around in the 1940’s, but it sure seems to have been as pointless a time as the 60s were for me. So choose well in deciding your nostalgic moments.
Hope and redemption are the bread-and-butter of Christmas movies. The most slapstick of holiday fare will put a zany twist on the main character’s deepest, unachieved aspirations, complete with somber moments of reflection. As out of place and off putting these moments may be, they’re almost obligatory to change the trajectory from an otherwise madcap romp off the edge of a cliff to a satisfying yuletide redemptive family miracle ending. (Think “Home Alone” or “How the Grinch Stole Christmas“.) Pile it on thick with zany comedy, as long as you manage to subtly pull at our heartstrings along the way.
Yes, Christmas for you as a screenwriter begins at FADE IN and ends at FADE OUT. Even if it’s only the middle of July.
About Joe Gruberman:
Joe Gruberman is an Arizona-based writer, educator, and award-winning multimedia producer. His latest two films, ELEVEN ELEVEN and RAISING BUCHANAN, are available on most streaming platforms.