I decided early in the fall that 2017 was going to be a Television Holiday Movie Review-free year for me. It’s true that 2016 was mostly that, but it wasn’t my intent. I won’t lie, it’s been nice not having to churn out the words. On the other hand, I do miss the interactions with others when new TV movies come out. So, why the break?
It’s partly because of burnout with doing it. After a while they just merged into a red and green blur of treacle and melodrama. A lot of the rest is Hallmark — other cable outlets, too, but mostly Hallmark so that’s where much of the focus here will be. This comes from the areas of content, production, and accessibility. Let’s address the last one first.
By accessibility I mean screeners. These (sometimes not yet finished) movies are available to reviewers a week or more before they air. This makes writing up a timely review a lot easier.
My goal with reviews was to post just as a movie’s premiere showing ended. If the review was already written, that was easy. If the production had made changes between the screener print and the broadcast print, it was usually fairly trivial to tweak the review and post it on-time or just after. Three or four years ago, I had access to four or five sources of screeners (or at least extensive media materials) for the various outlets. Last year it was pretty much down to Hallmark, and even they dropped out only a few movies in. Hardly ideal.
Back in the interweb’s heyday, I would review shows for various sites for reasonable compensation. One show that sticks out to me required a 500-word (minimum) recap plus a 1000-word (minimum) review by midnight eastern time of a show that ended at 9pm ET. In my time zone, this gave me two hours. It was a bit of a rush but not bad. But then work intervened and made the deadline less assured. The site owners accommodated that, but after two long days of getting two print publications out, I wasn’t exactly thrilled with having to watch and immediately push out a review. This is what not having screeners is like for me.
So, with no guarantee of a stream of screeners, the joy of reviewing the holiday movies sort of leaves the room.
There is a sameness to holiday movies. That’s actually why I started reviewing them — so they’d be evaluated among their peers and not compared to the latest gee-whiz blockbuster in the theaters. There aren’t a ton of generalized plots available: Santa is real, it’s a wonderful life, Scrooging with the ghosts, perfect romances with an inexplicable other “love” interest, supernatural being having to do a good deed, etc. Accepting that makes things easier except when it becomes formula.
The Hallmark gorilla has developed formulas for its holiday movies. Often you see can see that they’ve taken this bit from container A and this other bit from container B and so on. It makes many of their movies almost insultingly predictable. That said, they do also manage to make it work fine a lot of the time.
When you poke around outside the Hallmark hegemony, you mostly see the same sorts of stories (sometimes exactly the same story) — as I said, not a ton of plots available — but with less formulaic takes on how they unfold and resolve. This makes the movies feel fresher even if they aren’t inherently any better or worse. Sadly, these movies have to be sought out and scheduled (forget screeners at this point) as they aren’t on the heavy rotation that Hallmark provides with its fare.
After a while, it becomes very hard to distinguish between movies. Most fall in the 2.75-3.25 range on my 0-5 scale (I don’t grade on a curve within the genre). Rock bottom tends to be 2.5 as no one wants to show a dud, and anything over a 4 is something special that only occurs once every two years (give or take). But the bell curve of so many just-OK movies makes me less eager to tackle yet another formula movie review.
The thing that hurts a lot of movies are the choices made to bring it to presentation outside of the script. This basically means money and the usual lack thereof. Hallmark compensates through its stable of stock video — I swear I saw the same distinctive overhead street shot in at least five of the new movies this year. By also reusing the same locations and actors, Hallmark becomes very homogenous.
Other outlets don’t have a problem so much with sameness as they do with the small things like audio, scoring, lighting, and so forth. While there are a fair number of movies that would be at home on any network, a good number still seem more like student productions, sad to say.
Perhaps the biggest issue I have in the production arena is diversity. While leads on Hallmark tend to be of a certain hue, and this was a factor in my choosing not to do reviews this year as a small protest (FWIW, I’m of that same hue), I do have to give them credit for overall doing better this year with the casting as a whole. More non-white actors have been given parts with several pages of dialog, making them a day players with a full part, instead of being nonspeaking extras or “under-fives” (less than five lines of dialog/fifty words). So, I have to give them their due for improving this much while also holding on to expectations for them to continue doing better. And by that I mean not just in terms of ethnicity but of culture and orientation (given the demos of the network, I’m not going to hold my breath on this becoming common).
I also have to grant that Hallmark has been a lot better with their scoring and foley work. There aren’t nearly as many obvious dead atmospherics as was the case even just a couple of years ago.
Some of my decision not to review was based on it personally having been a stressful year. My family and I have opted to stress-reduce this year’s holiday season. And it’s been great. Highly recommended.
I’m also very aware that the audience for blogs isn’t what it was. Things have moved toward videos and podcasts more than in the past. I still haven’t reconciled a way for me to productively jump on that bandwagon. And, given how fast things change, a new paradigm is just about due to make an appearance.
In terms of the movies themselves, nothing has wowed me in the past year or two to force me out of my hiatus. There have been some better than average movies but nothing that is a must-watch that simply has to be talked about. I think this is largely due to the necessary methods of production to crank out between 30-to-40 movies a season that don’t encourage working a story until it can stand out. As of late, good enough seems to have been considered good enough.
“But CJ”, you ask, “why don’t you write something that would be worthy?” I’ve thought about it. I miss writing screenplays. But then reality sets in. I’m more than a decade out of the development/production loop — plus I’m “locationally challenged” and I’m not exactly a spring chicken (it’s show biz…that matters). Besides, I don’t have a good holiday story sitting on my self just begging to be told, either. For now, it’s a lot easier kvetching about what’s wrong or right with other people’s efforts — and that’s something that I do hope to get back to in some form before too long. Stay tuned.