How the “Pivot to Christmas” Became a Career Expander for a Certain Kind of Star

When Holly Robinson Peete, star of popular shows in the ’80s and ’90s like 21 Jump Street, Hanging With Mr. Cooper, and For Your Love, turned 40, she looked around at the film and television landscape and didn’t like her future. It would be made up, she feared, largely of grandmother or aunty roles, and that was if she was lucky enough to have any roles at all. Then her fellow ’90s star and friend Lori Loughlin told her about a place where the actors are still romantic leads well into middle age, and it just happens to be Christmas most of the year: the Hallmark Channel

“Now I’m pushing 60 and I’m still number one on the call sheet with nice chocolate brown boys that are my love interest,” Peete said in a recent phone interview. “Like, I’m not aunty status.”

You do not need Vanity Fair to tell you that Christmas and other holiday films have expanded significantly in the last 5 to 10 years. Simply turn on any channel or streaming service after October 21. More than 120 were made this year alone, and it’s not just Hallmark and Lifetime, which are the largest producers of Christmas-themed made-for-TV films in the US. Up TV, BET, Netflix, AMC, ABC, and the newly relaunched, and quickly controversial, Great American Family have tried to get a piece of the expansive pie. Coca-Cola even made a Christmas movie anthology this year. 

But in that expansion is the equally steady growth of well-paying, dependable opportunities for a range of actors. Musicians have long turned to the holiday album for a reliable win in record sales against the odds—that is, through the Napster era into the Spotify era. See: Mariah Carey, Barbra Streisand, Ariana Grande, Michael Bublé, Justin Bieber, Idina Menzel, and so, so many more. Since Hallmark leaned all the way into Christmas over a decade ago, those musicians and actors, too, have another opportunity to pivot to Christmas. Though there are actors who come up within the world of the holiday film, for some pros with long resumés, the world of the holidays can be a space to extend one’s career onscreen and to get involved behind the camera. There’s now room for almost anyone, as long as they want to merge their brand with the generally wholesome family-oriented content on offer. 

Lindsay Lohan is probably the biggest star for a certain demographic to get into the 2022 market with Falling for Christmas, alongside a two-film deal with Netflix widely viewed as a comeback for the actor. At Hallmark, you’ll also find Lohan’s Mean Girls costars, Jonathan Bennett and the network’s reigning queen of Christmas, Lacey Chabert. They also have Sister Sister’s Tamera Mowry-Housley and rom-com king Dermot Mulroney. (The “all cheer all the time crowd” is not without its reactionaries. Hallmark formerly had Candace Cameron Bure and The Wonder Years’ Danica McKellar, but last year, the two actors jumped to Great American Family, which Bill Abbott, former head of Crown Media, Hallmark’s parent company, cocreated and aimed expressly at a Christian audience. That means, Bure has gone out of her way to say, don’t expect LGBTQ+ stories.) Meanwhile, at Lifetime, where they, like Hallmark, turn their programming over to holiday content before the clock even strikes Halloween, the onscreen talent is full of familiar names and faces: Kelly Rowland, Mario Lopez, Reba McEntire, Kelsey Grammer, Tia Mowry, Patti LaBelle, and Rita Moreno have all joined the cause.

The actors who make a great “get” in the space certainly have a “nostalgia factor,” according to Amy Winter, Lifetime executive vice president and head of programming. But besides being recognizable, “there’s a likability, there’s a relatability to everybody that’s in the season. You feel like, if you showed up and they were near you, that you would be fast friends. No matter how big of a star they are, they just have that unique quality, each of them individually.” 

And sometimes it’s all about the pairing. “We were very excited to work with Jane Seymour this year,” Winter added. “And then, we’re like, do we think we could get Joe Lando? Because it would be really amazing if there was this Dr. Quinn reunion. Our audience gets it and loves it. There’s a nostalgia factor to it.” 

This year, those two old costars released A Christmas Spark on Lifetime.

For the talent, one pro is perhaps obvious. They’re able to reach larger audiences in a world where rom-coms rarely get theater releases anymore and the streaming landscape is so fractured. Holiday programming’s reliable numbers are a ratings story every year, it seems. So far, 2022 is no different. Nothing has been tied up with a bow yet, but by early December, Hallmark’s films were averaging two million viewers each, according to Decider.

There’s also a participatory element actors may be looking for at a certain point in their careers.  As Lisa Hamilton Daly, the executive vice president of programming for Hallmark Media told me over email, “In the grand scheme of things, we are a small shop and our talent is our most valuable commodity, so we take a lot of care to make them feel valued and welcome; we want them to feel seen and heard, and we invite their creative input.”

Peete, who has executive produced The Christmas Doctor and A Family Christmas Gift, among others, added, “It was the respect for my body of work, for my career. They didn’t make me audition.”

There’s a similar homespun bent at Lifetime. Tanya Lopez, the network’s executive vice president who heads up scripted content, says a lot of the storylines audiences see onscreen comes directly from the actors, especially when it comes to the marquee names. Tony-award winner Ali Stroker was able to make adjustments to the script that felt true to her life in a wheelchair for her role in Christmas Ever After. But, Lopez added, it didn’t have to “feel like an after-school special… It was a Christmas movie and she was the love interest.” 

And when Lifetime was in talks with Kelly Rowland about potential films, she inspired what would become one of the most popular holiday films on the network. Lopez’s team and Rowland met one recent February, and Rowland was still traumatized from the panic of hosting her entire family, nieces, and nephews, and all, for Christmas in her newly decorated home—newly decorated in white from top to bottom. 

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