Dan Goforth explores what it takes to hit the mark at the Hallmark Channel with screenwriter Bob Saenz.
In 2001, the Hallmark Channel was launched, followed two years later by the Hallmark Movie Channel. They quickly became two of cable’s leading family friendly networks, with the Hallmark Channel now reaching over 85 million homes, and the Hallmark Movies & Mysteries Channel available to over 65 million subscribers.
With over 75 original movies produced for the 2016 season alone, Hallmark has become a sought-after market for many screenwriters. Bob Saenz is one of the select few writers who have had continued success in writing Hallmark movies, including the popular Help for the Holidays, starring Summer Glau of Firefly fame.
With eight credited films at Hallmark, and several more uncredited involvement, Bob Saenz was the perfect writer to talk with about what it takes to hit the mark at Hallmark.
Bob: When I did my first film for them, Help for the Holidays, I had no idea it would turn into such a wonderful relationship. I’m really fortunate. The people I’ve dealt with both at the production companies I’ve worked with and Hallmark couldn’t be nicer or more professional. They are a joy to work for and with.
Script: Help for the Holidays was such a great script. How did things come about for it to become a Hallmark movie?
Bob: That script is very very special to me. It’s my very first produced credited film. Eighteen years ago, I wrote a script called Extracurricular Activities. It’s the anti-Hallmark film. A dark, uber-twisted, edgy, sarcastically funny, controversial thriller. It opened doors all over Hollywood. People loved it, but were honestly afraid to make it because of the storyline. Luckily, during one of the eight times it was optioned over the years, a director who loved it recommended me to a manager. That manager set up my first meeting with a production company looking for Hallmark writers.
The exec read EA and asked to meet me. She gave me a script to read called “Help for the Holidays.” It was about regular girl who helped a family find their Christmas spirit. I think the version I got was written by one of maybe three or four writers before me on the project. I wondered why they bought it.
The exec told me I was their last resort before they threw in the towel. I told her I had nothing. Then she said, “What if she was an Elf?” And I was off to the races.
Using just the character names and some of the basic storyline only from the original, I wrote a new, completely original script. And they loved it. Really loved it. It got made, almost word for word what I wrote.
Summer Glau starred in the only Hallmark film she’s ever done. She said in an interview that she did it because of the script. It was pretty great. Then it had astronomical ratings. Highest of the year 2012 for Hallmark, 7th highest of all time. I loved the way it turned out. I couldn’t be prouder of a film. Thus began my relationship with Hallmark.
Script: How do you prepare for meetings with the Hallmark execs?
Bob: Like you do with any production meetings. Thoroughly. You spend time preparing so you can answer every question they have about anything related to the story or the script you’re pitching, or if it’s one they’ve bought, you know everything about that story and those characters. Even what those characters would do in any situation outside of the story.
You actively listen. Open your mind to their notes. You acknowledge the great notes, and that these people are smart and know their product, then thank then for making your script better. If it’s a note that you think is off the mark, you are able to use your extensive knowledge of the script and story to explain why it won’t work. And if they insist on the note you don’t agree with, you smile and integrate it into the script the best way you know how.
Script: What are the keys to a good Hallmark movie?
Bob: Knowing their brand. Every good network has a brand. An audience they play to. An audience that knows what they are getting when they tune into that network. Hallmark is no different. They have a set of rules that you have to play by. A box you have to write in to a certain extent.
But in that box, you’re allowed to be creative. They encourage it. It’s not always easy. My go-to writing style is not Hallmark. Anyone who’s read any of my non-Hallmark original specs knows they are dark comedy and thriller directed and always a little off center. So, when I started writing for them, I did color outside the lines a little and they laughed and said, “That’s funny. We can’t do that.” So, I’ve learned how to be creative within their understandable limitations to story. I enjoy writing for them.
Script: Any advice for writers who want to write for Hallmark?
Bob: Yep. Turn on the Hallmark Channel and watch their films. Look at what they want in their films. It doesn’t take watching many. Look those films up on IMDbPro. Look at the companies who produced them and write your Hallmark film and query them. If you have a manager or agent, they’ll know.
BOB SAENZ has been a working writer and actor for the last 20+ years. He has eight produced Cable Network films, Help for the Holidays, starring Summer Glau, which was the Number One rated original film for Hallmark Channel in 2012 and the 10th highest rated Hallmark Channel film of all time. He also has two other highly rated Hallmark Christmas films, On the 12th Day of Christmas and Sound of Christmas. His others are romantic comedies Sweet Surrender, On Paper, Rescuing Madison, Romantically Speaking, and The Right Girl.
His theatrical black comedy thriller Extracurricular Activities is in post production and stars VEEP’s Timothy Simons, Ellie Bamber, Colin Ford, Danielle McDonald, and Sarah Hay. He has done writing for production companies and producers that include Intrepid Films, Ascendant Films, TSProductions, Act III, Laurent Bourzereau, Norman Lear, Polygram Pictures, MCPA, and others.
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