Holiday movies are some of the most consistent box office earners in the industry. Holiday classics like It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story often have 24-hour runs. And modern classics continue like Christmas Vacation, Elf, The Santa Clause, Home Alone, and Scrooged, have become seasonal staples on most networks. And if you think the holiday genre is tired, think again.
The 2018 animated remake of The Grinch has earned over half a billion dollars all by itself in just two years. The Hallmark and Lifetime Channels have made a successful ratings business out of producing original Holiday-themed telemovies. The point is, the holiday genre is incredibly successful. When you factor in the pull of seasonal classics with the abundance of made-for-tv and streaming holiday films on Netflix and Hulu, it truly is the happiest time of the year for screenwriters.
But what is it about these holiday movies that makes people come back for more year after year? And how do you write a holiday classic that stands the test of time?
We've explored a few types of holiday movies in the past with Writing a Holiday Film, but in this article we're going to dive deeper into this genre to find out what makes a holiday movie truly great. There’s something to be said for a genre that creates timeless classics with an audience base that grows and grows each and every year. Here are the seven essential ingredients you need to write a classic holiday film.
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7 Essential Elements of Great Holiday Movies
Nearly every great Christmas movie allows the audience to be kids again. Even if they're about adult themes and stories, the holiday genre is steeped in nostalgia, coating every scene with familiar touchstones for audiences to grab onto and make their own. Even more interesting is how these movies get passed down to kids by their parents, becoming part of the holiday tradition.
(Most) adults have long outgrown the days of making a list for Santa. You don't pray for snow. And Christmas might be a bit of a headache with the stress of gifts, family, and all the other tasks that go into the holiday season. But when you watch a A Christmas Story you get to experience Christmas through the eyes of young Ralphie. You remember the excitement of snow days, snow forts, snow fights, seeing Santa in the mall, staring up at the endless Christmas lights in the city and suburbs, and getting that one special gift that was at the top of our lists — the one we've been dreaming about getting the whole year. And it feels great.
Nostalgia drives most holiday movies. And that's ok. Screenwriters and filmmakers need to tap into these powerful emotions with set pieces and scenes that take advantage of our shared childhood experiences of the holidays. Those universal themes and memories we’ve all experienced as children. The more small details that you embed in your screenplay, the more chances you have to remind a viewer why they love watching Christmas movies.
Believe it or not, there was a time when most of us believed in a fat, jolly, white-bearded man entering our houses through the fireplace. Even if your parents let you in on the secret, there's still a lot of belief and hope tied up with the holiday seasons. There's something to say that the darkest, longest night of the year is the night we choose to gather and celebrate with loved ones.
Even if you're a grinch, the magic of that truth (wink wink) is part of how we experience the season.
As adults, we live in a cynical world. We live in a world of practicality, deadlines, appointments, and bills. It's rough out there sometimes. But the beauty (and appeal) of Christmas movies like The Santa Clause, Miracle of 34th Street, and The Polar Express, is how they tap into a part of our lives that we’ve long let go, and make us remember what it was like to really believe in something.
Even something as incredible as Santa.
When we watch these movies with our children, that magic is reborn and we pass that feeling of wonder onto the next generation. For adult audiences especially, the magic of Christmas, and the holidays as a whole, can stay alive as long as screenwriters and filmmakers are willing to explore it.
For many of us, the holidays are all about family. And for those unfortunate enough to not be able to be with their family during that season, there’s that longing to do so. That’s what so many holiday movies explore so well.
The essence of family taps into the emotions of the audience, especially when estrangement and geographical separation is explored. Kevin longing for his family in Home Alone is something that pulls all of our heartstrings. The estrangement between the old man and his family living next door to Kevin in that same movie is something so many can unfortunately relate with.
Family (or the lack of family) is a universal theme, especially for holiday films. Structure your screenplay around the search to belong and what "home" really means and you'll have one of the most essential elements of a holiday classic.
When it comes to holiday movies, atmosphere is everything. What would a holiday movie be without Christmas lights and decorations?
How good is a holiday movie without snow (yes, we know there doesn’t always have to be snow)?
What about crowded toy stores with desperate parents?
Atmosphere can even take an otherwise un-holiday movie to the top of many Holiday Movie lists.
- Die Hard
- Lethal Weapon
- Trading Places
- Batman Returns
- Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
All holiday movies. In fact, some of those are peoples' favorite holiday movies. On that note, what would a holiday movie be without Christmas trees?
5. Holiday Tropes & Clichés
Most critics and screenwriters scoff at tropes and clichés. They often feel that Hollywood cinema is worse off because of them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Audiences love what is familiar, especially when it comes to seasonal movies.
The test of a great screenwriter is giving audiences what they know while offering something new. For holiday movies, tropes and clichés are necessary — the crazy grandparent, the weird uncle, the rebellious teenager, the naughty kid, and the career-focused parent. But it's what you do with those familiar elements that make a story stand out and last for decades.
Those and more are all necessary components of holiday movies because the audiences can identify with them. The great screenwriters can turn those tropes and clichés on their head or at least offer a subtle spin.
The holiday season is a season of hope. I know that's an optimistic take, but it's true. Audiences watch these holiday movies over and over and over again because we can all use a little more hope in our lives.
When was the last holiday movie that you saw void of hope? Never. Even Bad Santa has a redemption arc. What great Christmas movies have ended on a sour note with no happy ending? None.
Even the holiday dramas like Home for the Holidays offer us hope in the end. Home Alone explores the idea of hope so well with Kevin’s mom on a seemingly hopeless journey to travel across the country to get back to her boy.
A holiday screenplay without hope is like a Christmas tree without presents under it. Write a hopeful screenplay and audiences will respond.
One of the most common ingredients to holiday movies is redemption. There have been roughly 23 direct adaptations of A Christmas Carol For some reason, people are drawn to the journey of redemption that Ebenezer Scrooge takes on Christmas Eve. It's easily one of the most recognizable, enduring, and adapted holiday films for a reason. People want to believe they can be better than they were.
There have been many incarnations of It’s a Wonderful Life, which told the harrowing tale of George Bailey’s redemption after falling from grace in the eyes of his career, his town, his wife, and his children.
The need for redemption means that there is major conflict that the character(s) need to overcome. Conflict is the root of all great storytelling, so needless to say, the best holiday movies have redemption stories. Kevin needed redemption in Home Alone after wishing his family away. So did the Grinch, Scott in The Santa Clause, Jack in The Nightmare Before Christmas, Clark in Christmas Vacation, and even Scrooge McDuck in Mickey’s Christmas Carol.
How to write a great Christmas movie
These are the seven essential ingredients you need to write a great holiday film. Like any good recipe, you can add and remove ingredients as you see fit. A sprinkle of magic here, a cup of hope there, a teaspoon of redemption, a pinch of atmosphere, etc. Just don't deviate too far from the tried and true formula that audiences love.
While Christmas is the holiday that clearly dominates the genre, it’s really about the holiday season as a whole that makes audiences of all walks of life and beliefs enjoy these movies. Beyond that, knowing that the holiday genre is one of the most consistent audience-pleasers and time and time again proves to have more legs and staying power than any other genre, consider taking these ingredients and making your own recipe for the perfect holiday movie — be it a Christmas or Hanukkah, or a combination of the two as we get with The Night Before.
Have fun with it. Happy Holidays, no matter how you celebrate.
If you’ve got the next great holiday movie script, enter it into ScreenCraft’s Family Screenplay Competition to get your story in front of judges who know how to create great stories for the whole family.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies