Christmas in Tahoe is the name of a new movie debuting Sunday (Nov. 28) on Hallmark Channel as part of the network’s perennial Countdown to Christmas promotion. It’s also the name of pop-rock hitmakers Train’s perennial holiday album, first released in 2015.
Coincidence? Not a chance. The movie was not only developed around the album and features a handful of its songs — plus a new Train single, “Mittens” — but frontman Pat Monahan has a starring role, and serves as an executive producer.
“Hallmark had a concept they threw to us, and I thought it was perfect,” says Monahan of the movie, which has been in the works for a few years and features several new renditions of the band’s tunes. “We had to do a little bit of rerecording just to get the right vibe for the movie,” he says. “They’ve had singing in their movies before, but never this much. And they wanted to try to go younger, which I though was great too. So the stars of the cast are younger Broadway stars that were really great to work with.”
’Tis the season to settle in front of the TV, and at Hallmark as well as holiday-decked Lifetime, programming is taking more musical cues than ever as networks look to expand audience share and labels seek new avenues of exposure for artists. Covers of classic holiday tunes, original songs and on-screen performances are all in the mix for artists.
“This year [Hallmark] seems a lot more music-focused, using a lot of bigger artists and emerging artists as well,” says Emma Duddridge, manager of creative sync, licensing & soundtracks at Atlantic Records, who helped bring music from Kelly Clarkson, Rob Thomas and others to Hallmark this season. “It’s a great way for our artists to get new audiences who may not typically have been listening to them.”
Lifetime’s 2021 It’s a Wonderful Lifetime slate of 35 originals puts artists including Reba McEntire, who lends her voice and acting chops to “Reba McEntire’s Christmas In Tune” (also starring John Schneider); Smokey Robinson; Kelly Rowland, who sings the net’s official promo song and stars in “Merry Liddle Christmas Baby”; Jana Kramer and Marie Osmond in the spotlight.
Robinson, who appears as himself and delivers a cover of “Silent Night” in “Miracle in Motown,” was drawn to the story’s focus on a city dear to his heart. “That was what attracted me to it,” he says.
“I want to do movies, but I don’t want to play myself. But my agent sent it to me and said, ‘Hey man, this is a great script. It’s about a Black family in Detroit at Christmastime and you’re in it — but you have to be you. Before you say no, I want you to read it.’ I read it and I thought it was warm, wonderful and sweet — and I hope it brings some positive feelings for the people of Detroit.”
Hallmark’s seasonal bounty, featuring 41 originals across Hallmark Channel, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries and Hallmark Movies Now, also features music, acting and/or production collaborations with Gwen Stefani, who provides the Countdown theme; Jordin Sparks; Scotty McCreery, whose original song “Five More Minutes” inspired the movie of the same name; Michelle Williams; Brad Paisley; and Blake Shelton, who produced the last film in his four-movie deal, Time For Them To Come Home.
While he can’t quantify the effect of stepping up ties with music artists, Hallmark senior vp of original programming Randy Pope says “there’s no doubt, when you have someone with the reach of Kelly, Pat Monahan, Rob — they bring an awareness to us, and give us a lot of credibility. And they help us be a little more contemporary in some people’s eyes who hadn’t thought of us before. It gives us an opportunity to show how our programming is evolving.”
Lifetime exec vp and head of programming Amy Winter calls the network’s accelerated music focus “100% additive. These artists all come with a massive amount of fandom and they are amazing collaborators in terms of getting the message out about their holiday movie to their fans.”
Conversations tend to focus on artists who are slated for holiday releases and can offer cross-promotional opportunities. This year both networks will feature music talent on their Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade floats — Rowland for Lifetime and Thomas for Hallmark, a first for both. Clarkson is doing a signed CD giveaway with Hallmark; Lifetime and McEntire are partnering on this year’s Gift of A Lifetime, the network’s annual pro-social initiative through which it connects with charitable organizations to deliver brand partnership donations to deserving women and their families.
“There’s definitely a lot bigger things going on beyond just the movie,” Duddridge says. “We’ve never had so many looks with multiple artists on our roster. Because it’s such a high-volume situation, you could have an artist that may not fit the typical [network] sound throughout the year — but they have a holiday song, and it’s a great way to get a new type of audience, not in their typical setting.”
The TV tie-ins also bring opportunity for emerging artists. Hallmark recently staged a holiday drive-in sing-along in LA with artists featured in its holiday originals, and Duddridge took the opportunity to grab a slot for emerging artist Forest Blakk. “He sang a couple of his non-Christmas songs and a new holiday song. It was a great way for him to gain new fans, and the cast members were talking about him on social media,” she says.
Sometimes, the inspiration flows the other way. Hallmark on-screen talent Wes Brown wrote and performs an original song for his film Every Time a Bell Rings, which he’s releasing across streaming outlets. “The feedback we get from fans is they’re really enjoying these music-based projects,” Brown says. “I hope they continue to go down this road.”
With a growing focus on music artists ranging from last year’s Salt-N-Pepa and Mahalia Jackson biopics to its upcoming Janet Jackson documentary, “Lifetime has a legacy in the music space, and we are more actively digging in,” says Winter.
“We talk to our viewers year-round, and one of the things we’ve heard back loud and clear is we really bring big talent to the table,” she adds. “The [holiday] piece of that is the season lends itself to such amazing performances in movies where we have Grammy-winning talent — and we’re layering in some of the newer talent, like with Jana Kramer.”
The former One Tree Hill actress wrote an original song for The Holiday Fix Up, in which she stars. “I never wanted to be defined as just a singer or just an actress,” she says. “It’s been really great to have both my loves in one project.”
Pope says Hallmark is focusing on building deeper relationships with music artists with whom it can work 12 months a year. “We want to partner beyond just Christmas; music is important to us year-round,” he says. “I think this year will be the catalyst of us starting to plan more ahead… and find other areas where we can expand those relationships.”
And as the company expands its programming, including the launch of Mahogany-branded movies adapted from the legacy Hallmark greeting card line featuring stories centered around the Black experience, it aims to broaden its musical lens.
“Obviously we have a very big connection on the country music side, but we have fans across all genres,” Pope says. “As we broaden our audience, we want to get into more of a pop and R&B scene. And some of those labels and artists are starting to see, Hallmark is a place for [them] as well.”