Until recently, the TV movie business was non-existent outside of some kid’s fare on Disney Channel or the Bad Boyfriend of the Week genre on Lifetime. But that was then, this is now. The TV movie game has never been hotter and it can be hard for a new (or even seasoned) screenwriter to make a sale and, even more important, get his or her work produced. But even though the samples above are presented somewhat tongue-in-cheek, they point out a good reason that many would-be TV movie writers fail even before they get their work read – they don’t really know the audience of the channel, streamer or network they’re trying to sell to.
When I was first starting out in the business, I did a fair amount of writing for MTV and the Disney Channel. And I remember executives at both places commiserating that they’d often be pitched stories and ideas that indicated the writer or producer trying to sell them on a concept had either never watched the channel or (just as bad) hadn’t watched the channel recently.
A good example of this is Hallmark Channel, which has put its stamp on the TV movie marketplace with its annual Countdown to Christmas (featuring 40 all-new seasonal movies for the 2020 holiday season). People joke about Hallmark movies. Other networks even follow the template of Hallmark movies. But do writers looking to sell their TV movie scripts actually watch said movies before pitching or even writing them?
I ask this because I’m often approached by people looking for what they think will be a quick sale. This is because I wrote the 2016 Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, A Heavenly Christmas starring Kristin Davis, Eric McCormack and Shirley MacLaine. I appreciate that people consider me to be an expert on Christmas movies because of this. But the reason my movie came to be was because I was prepared in regard to what kind of material the channel was looking for when I went in to pitch some initial ideas.
Too often writers assume that “Anything Christmas” will pass muster. This couldn’t be further from the truth. First off, with the amount of Christmas movies that Hallmark Channel and its sister network Hallmark Movies & Mysteries have produced over recent years, a lot of what people are pitching has already been done.
Another common mistake is pitching an idea focused on a male character (when Hallmark’s leads are always women – period). Next up, comes a lot of tomfoolery or 1990s-style romantic comedy banter. Sure, Hallmark Channel is into romance. But they’re not looking for “Three’s Company”-style miscommunications that lead to all sorts of mistaken identities and assumptions. Similarly, in recent years, the channel has been more interested in holiday stories that are realistic (as opposed to featuring Santa Claus or other mythical creatures or even angels).
“But your Christmas movie had an angel,” a would-be writer will respond. To which I quickly reply, “That was 2016. Hallmark Channel is now looking for material for 2022, 2023 and beyond.” (No, that wasn’t a typo – Hallmark really is that far ahead of the game.)
Kristin Davis and Shirley MacLaine in "A Heavenly Christmas"
Romance happens to be the A-story that’s necessary for a Hallmark Christmas movie (at this moment). And the lead needs to be a strong, yet compassionate woman who can figure things out for herself and isn’t looking for a romance to “Save her.” At the same time, no TV movie outlet is looking for a sassy character that needs to be made over in a Scrooge-like fashion.
This means character arcs are more subtle in a Hallmark movie than they might be in a feature. Again, anything “Over the top” is an automatic no-go at this present moment. Diversity and inclusion are also current mandates that are very important. But these elements need to be organic to the story you’re telling.
Had these writers who’ve approached me actually watched Hallmark Channel movies from the previous Christmas season, they would be able to discern all this by detecting patterns and trends. All of the information is there, waiting to be had. How prominently do secondary characters figure into the scripts? What are the usual age ranges of the leads? Are children involved in the plots? And, if so, what age groups do they normally represent?
Look for the trends you can spot on the channel, network or streamer. Don’t assume that the occasional outlier is de rigueur for what they might be looking for. Again, my movie happens to be about afterlife, angels and even death. But my project was a Hallmark Hall of Fame project, which is always a little different than the usual fare. To take your best shot at getting your project read and made, you want to aim for the sweet spot, which is what is typical for the presenter.
Sure, it takes time and it’s a matter of doing your homework. But isn’t this homework worth doing to get your script considered for actual production?
Kristin Davis and Eric McCormack in "A Heavenly Christmas"
I’m someone who’s been lucky enough to have features and TV projects produced (for both network and cable). I’ve also been “lucky” enough to sell things that ended up in development hell (meaning it sold but hasn’t been actually produced). This is called the life of a writer. But because I did my research when I went in for my general meeting at Hallmark Channel, I presented an idea that got the executive very excited and we were off to the races.
There are a lot of people who think of Hallmark and other cable channels as an easy mark – when nothing could be further from the truth. And by the way, consider that my TV movie ended up starring screen legend Shirley MacLaine and being written up in the Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly and other outlets. These are bigger names and venues than some of my other “higher profile” work garnered. And much of it is because I was prepared and never forgot what channel and what audience I was writing for. I was writing out of a place of respect, as opposed to a place of “This will be an easy sell because they make so many Christmas movies.”
The time and effort you put into getting to know your audience (“audience” as it relates to both buyer and eventual viewers) needs to be reflected in your ideas and your script. Yes, the market for writers selling TV movies is a terrific one right now. But it’s also highly competitive. So don’t sell yourself short by not doing your research (AKA “homework”) before developing, writing and hopefully selling your next great TV movie idea.
Gregg is a film and television writer/producer whose Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, A Heavenly Christmas, premiered to the highest ratings in Hallmark Channel history.
Other recent credits include the 1-hour series Sister Code for BET and the dance movie Brand New Moves for Nickelodeon. Gregg is also a featured blogger for Psychology Today and The Huffington Post as well as a meditation teacher for Insight Timer. Gregg lives in Los Angeles where he is also very involved with animal rescue.
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