We often overlook the holiday movie genre, only giving it thought as the festive season approaches. But did you know holiday movies are some of the most lucrative and beloved films around? Classics like "Elf," written by David Berenbaum, "A Christmas Story," written by Jean Sheperd, Leigh Brown, and Bob Clark, and "Home Alone," written by John Hughes, are go-to's for various television networks to replay and often find themselves rereleased in movie theatres. Channels such as Hallmark and Lifetime pride themselves on their holiday rating successes, and streaming services like Hulu and Netflix are also hopping on the holiday bandwagon. So how do you get in on the action? Well, you're in luck because today I'm talking all about how to write a holiday movie!
First things first: When describing the holiday season, I consider it to extend from November (American Thanksgiving) into the new year. A holiday movie can focus on a specific holiday occurring during that time (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year's Eve, etc.) or could have a plot not necessarily holiday-related, but that occurs and benefits from the holiday season. Think movies like Shane Black's "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," Steven E. de Souza and Jeb Stuart's "Die Hard," or Daniel Waters' "Batman Returns." Every year people love to argue about whether these are holiday movies or not, and I'm here to provide you with a definitive answer: Yes! Their environment, setting, and overall aesthetic do make these films holiday movies. Still, for this blog, I will specifically get into how to write holiday movies with a holiday-focused plot.
What's the focus of your favorite holiday movie?
Think about your favorite holiday movies. What are some topics or common themes they seem to include?
Whether it's getting home to see your family ("Home for the Holidays" by W.D. Richter and Chris Radant) or it's wishing your family away ("Home Alone" by John Hughes) or wishing you didn't learn certain secrets about your dysfunctional family ("This Christmas" by Preston A. Whitmore II) family will always provide a never-ending source of inspiration and opportunities for writers. You don't have to look much farther than your own family for inspiration! What are some traditions your family does every holiday season? What are your own personal favorite family holiday stories? Is there one family holiday story that comes to mind? What made it so memorable? Thinking about your own family can help tap into a story idea that's unique yet universally understood! Remember, everyone deals with family – finding family, losing family, arguing with family - that's what makes family stories so relatable.
"A Christmas Story," written by Jean Sheperd, Leigh Brown, and Bob Clark, "Elf," written by David Berenbaum, and even "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," written by John Hughes, are all steeped with a sense of nostalgia for a Christmas gone by. Most holiday movies utilize nostalgia in one way or another, either to inform their set designs and visual storytelling ("Elf") or to reminisce and reflect upon what it was like to be a child during the holiday season ("A Christmas Story"). Let nostalgia help inform how you want to frame your movie. How did you think or feel about the holidays as a child? Is there one childhood holiday that feels like a magical memory? Are holidays better or worse than they were in your childhood?
There's often a certain kind of magic that only that special time of year can summon up in holiday movies. Think about a dad magically becoming the new Santa Claus in "The Santa Clause" by Leo Benvenuti and Steve Rudnick, or children going on a whimsical train ride and learning about the magic of belief in "The Polar Express," by Robert Zemeckis and William Broyles Junior. Holiday movies don't need to be all magic; they can feel heavily rooted in reality with magical circumstances like in "It's a Wonderful Life," written by Frank Capra, Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Michael Wilson, and Jo Swerling. Think of different ways to incorporate magic into your holiday script! The holidays are a time where people are willing to suspend their disbelief and open themselves up to the impossible, all for the sake of a warm, happy holiday ending.
"Love Actually," written by Richard Curtis, is probably one of the most well-known romantic holiday films; its ensemble cast delves into various love stories. It had a very successful theatrical release. However, it's networks like Hallmark and Lifetime where we really see holiday romance movies shine. Lifetime has had hits with "Mistletoe & Menorahs," written by Guy Yosub, "The Spirit of Christmas," written by Tracy Andreen, and "My Christmas Inn," written by Jeffrey Schenck, Peter Sullivan, Amy Bircher, and Anna White. Meanwhile, Hallmark hit it out of the park with "The Sweetest Christmas," written by Erinne Dobson, "Let It Snow," written by Harvey Frost and Jim Head, and "The Christmas Cottage," written by Samantha Chase and Claudia Grazioso. These networks are so about the holiday romance; they regularly marathon their holiday films throughout the season.
Streaming services like Hulu and Netflix are also getting in on the holiday romance with films like "Happiest Season," written by Clea DuVall and Mary Holland, and "The Princess Switch," written by Megan Metzger and Robin Bernheim. So, if you've got romance in mind for your holiday film, go for it! Holiday romance movies are hugely popular, and there are plenty of opportunities for them, ranging from the small screen to the big screen.
Don't forget to think outside of the gift-wrapped box
Now that I've gone over some common holiday themes and tropes, it's important to remember that you have to make them your own. Take a traditional setup and send it in an unexpected direction. "Jack Frost," written by Mark Steven Johnson, Steve Bloom, Jonathan Roberts, and Jeff Cesario, does the unexpected by following the death of a father who returns to his son in the form of an enchanted snowman! Don't be afraid to shake things up!
Now, think over some of these key holiday movie components and utilize them to make your own unique holiday movie! Don't be afraid to make it personal to you and take the expected in an unexpected direction. Happy holidays (and writing)!