A recent film production in front of the ACT Arts Centre in Maple Ridge. (Contributed)

It’s Christmas in July on many B.C. movie sets as Hallmark boosts production

Crews routinely raid B.C. fishing docks for shaved ice to make summer Christmas shoots look more wintery

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas — at least on Canadian movie sets.

Especially in Vancouver, where “Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen” was one of five holiday-themed TV-movies — three by Hallmark — shot in B.C. this July alone.

Directed by Calgary native David Winning, the family-friendly feature stars Erin Krakow and London, Ont.-born Luke Macfarlane. Krakow, the American-born star of Hallmark’s “When Calls the Heart” (also shot in Vancouver), plays an over-enthusiastic Christmas planner, while Macfarlane co-stars as a Scrooge-like toy company CEO.

Before you can say “ho-ho-ho,” they become holiday sweethearts.

It’s Winning’s 15th movie for Hallmark, eight of which have been Christmas-themed.

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The director has a theory as to why his films consistently draw three to four million U.S. cable viewers: “In dark times, Hallmark does an excellent job of offering a safe harbour for viewers,” he said in a recent phone interview.

Quite often that safe harbour originates in Canada. Hallmark, a Crown Media company, ordered a record 100-plus TV movies into production in 2019. The network says about 70 are shot in Canada, including places such as North Bay, Sudbury and Parry Sound, Ont.

To achieve the right Christmas-in-July look, workers roll out fake snow made out of cotton batting, fetching truckloads of the real stuff from local hockey rinks to cover green lawns on outdoor sets.

Companies producing these films earn points and claim big tax advantages for every Canadian actor near the top of the call sheet. Canadian directors and writers also trigger tax incentives.

The price is right for Hallmark, which powered an aggressive slate of wholesome fare into becoming the most-watched U.S. cable network among women 18 to 49 and 25 to 54 in the fourth quarter of 2018, according to Nielsen.

The same leap in viewership occurred when the Hallmark brand was introduced in Canada last November as part of Corus’ W Network. On weekends that quarter, W became the No. 1 specialty network in Canada and the No. 1 most-watched network, surpassing conventional broadcasters such as CBC, CTV and Global according to Numeris PPM data.

Montreal-born Colin Ferguson, for one, is thrilled to be in high rotation on Hallmark. After years of playing it dark on shows such as “Eureka” and “The Vampire Diaries,” the Pasadena, Calif., resident is happy to fly to B.C. to shoot Hallmark’s “Cedar Cover” or 2018’s “Christmas on Honeysuckle Lane.”

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“They’re so loyal,” said the 46-year-old actor at a Television Critics Association event last winter.

“In this industry, you get used to the disposability of everybody because we’re all replaceable. These guys seek us out and go, ‘Do you want to do another one?’ That goes a long way with actors.”

As does finally being in a project his six-year-old son can enjoy. “He can’t watch most of what I’ve done yet, but he can watch a Hallmark movie, which is nice.”

Other Canadian actors who frequent Hallmark TV-movies include: Ottawa-born Brendan Penny, part of CTV’s “Motive” a few years ago and a regular on Hallmark’s “Chesapeake Shores”; Kamloops native Benjamin Ayres, seen last season on CBC’s “Burden of Truth” and featured on Hallmark’s “Chronicle Mysteries” movies; Lynda Boyd, a B.C. native and “Republic of Doyle” regular who has played mom to Meghan Markle and Jamie-Lynn Sigler in Hallmark Christmas movies. Finally, there’s Vancouver son Paul Campbell, who shared top billing with Dave Foley on the CTV sitcom “Spun Out” a few years ago and who has shot five holiday movies for Hallmark, including “A Godwink Christmas.”

“You do a Hallmark movie, you know it’s going to be feel-good and fun,” said Boyd, who nonetheless had some challenges shooting “SnowComing” in a 35 degree Celsius heat wave last summer in Squamish, B.C. “I was wearing a hat, coat and a scarf and I was having hot flashes. Help!”

Crews routinely raid B.C. fishing docks for shaved ice to make summer Christmas shoots look more wintery, while frosty breathing is sometimes added later in editing for the same reason.

Despite weather-related challenges on set, few Canadians turn down a Hallmark moment. Toronto-born Gabriel Hogan, featured on a series of “Murder, She Baked” TV-movies, says he loves the 13 to 15-day shooting schedules.

Actors with an itch to write and produce are taken seriously. Ayres and Campbell both have future Hallmark projects in development based on their own story suggestions.

Winning says it takes time to earn your way into the Hallmark family. “There’s a very small group of directors,” he says. Once you’re in — and enough viewers respond — you’re in.” The demand is such that Winning will get four days off before embarking on his 16th Hallmark TV-movie at the end of this month.

Campbell is also grateful for the Hallmark seal of approval. Usually an American, such as former “Full House” actress Candace Cameron Bure, takes top billing on a shot-in-Canada original.

Campbell’s star at the network has risen to the point, however, where he and Ottawa-born Kimberly Sustad — two Canadians — have the No. 1 and 2 spots in “A Godwink Christmas.” The key, says Campbell, is becoming “a recognizable face” on the network.

As for why Hallmark keeps casting Canadians in their Christmas films, Campbell, tongue somewhat in cheek, says it goes beyond the dollar.

“A lot of L.A. actors have a swagger which doesn’t actually work for Hallmark,” he says. Better the low-key Canadian approach: “Please love me!”

— Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.

Bill Brioux, The Canadian Press

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