The 2020 holiday season marked the first time Hallmark has included LGBTQ characters and storylines in their seasonal movies in a prominent way with “The Christmas House,” featuring Jonathan Bennett and Brad Harder as a gay couple looking to adopt.
But they were part of an ensemble cast.
On Thursday, Hallmark Channel executives were asked repeatedly by reporters during a virtual panel at the Television Critics Association press tour to give detailed answers about how the cable channel plans to expand on its representation in the coming season, including if the channel will have its first same-sex couple as the leads of a Christmas movie. And their answers were not direct enough for the journalists’ liking, who continued to pose questions on the topic during the 30-minute Q&A.
“When I think about the Hallmark brand, it is inclusive, and all you have to do is walk in a Hallmark store and you can see cards for LGBTQ community, for Mahogany [a line of Hallmark cards], for the African American female community, and so on and so forth, faith,” Wonya Lucas, the president and CEO of Hallmark parent Crown Media Family Networks, said, when first asked about the Hallmark Channel’s plans for more inclusion. “And so, we are really seeking to make sure that everyone can see themselves in our movies, because when we talk to our consumers, whether we’re talking to consumers of different races and ethnicities, even generationally, there are common themes and things that they are looking for in our movies. What we are going to do moving forward is just add a little more authenticity and complexity to the storylines.”
Michelle Vicary, Crown Media Family Networks’ head of programming, jumped in to tout “The Christmas House” (pictured above) and note that “Mix Up in the Mediterranean,” a movie Hallmark is premiering this weekend that stars Jeremy Jordan as twin brothers, one of whom is gay, is the cable channel’s “first gay lead.”
“He plays twins, which is a great role and I think he had a great time doing it. One is gay, one is straight, and through a comedy of errors, they have to switch places. So he has to be the twin, but be the other twin, and do it in both roles,” Vicary said.
Another television reporter asked “what was going on internally” when Hallmark was criticized in December 2019 for pulling a Zola ad with a kiss between a lesbian couple, and then reinstate it following backlash, and has since committed to including LGBTQ representation in its own projects.
“I can say that honestly, I wasn’t there, so I can’t speak to that,” said Lucas, who joined Hallmark in her current role last July. “I can’t speak to that at all. All I can speak to is where we are today. And really, just coming in six months ago and seeing the work that the team had already done and begun, it really did make me proud. It made me proud for a lot of reasons. I think that there is representation where you’re just dropping somebody in a movie and then there’s really trying to, when we say authentic, it is really trying to represent people as they truly live, as they truly are, and not in a stereotypical way. And I think when we look at what we’ve done, what the team has done, led by Michelle, it’s nothing short of amazing. And again, I mentioned it’s part of our brand, it is part of our brand, it has been part of our brand, in terms of the Hallmark global brand. So what I see moving forward, and I can speak for myself, is that we’re going to continue to lead into that and you’re going to see more of that. And we welcome advertisers, all the advertisers who have been supportive of us, and our team has been supportive, and our parent company is incredibly supportive. So this is who we are. We didn’t have to make it up. This is who we are.”
The same journalist followed up to ask if Hallmark is still receiving protests.
“Not to my knowledge. This is, again, I’ve been here six months, my inclination– I believe that people have moved on,” Lucas said. “And that people, based on our ratings success this holiday season, people are watching us and they are leaning into what we’re doing on both of our networks. And that’s where we are. So I can only look at where we are today and really be excited about where we’re going.”
A third reporter asked if Hallmark currently has films in the works with a same-sex couple and an interracial couple “front and center” as the featured storylines.
“‘Delivered by Christmas’ was actually– actually, a number of our movies featured interracial couples,” Lucas said. “‘Delivered by Christmas’ is one of my favorites. We have a movie coming up, ‘Mix Up in the Mediterranean,’ that does feature a gay couple as the lead. We mostly have ensemble movies, but definitely lead characters.”
Vicary added: “It was a big priority, not only for us to show diversity, but show different kinds of diversity. So we were really pleased to have interracial couples. I would say probably 25% of our movies had diversity in them. And that wasn’t a number we were trying to reach, it was just, how do we find the best casting and the best actors for each of these roles.”
A fourth reporter then said to Vicary, “This is all well and good, but you had the same job during the very non-diverse period of Hallmark. Were you aware at that time of how non-diverse it was? When you look back now, are there some things where you think you should have done a better job at that time? And also, one thing to address in general, there was a period where a Black actor would be inserted in the cast, but would always just be the friend of the main character, would never be the prime character. So just kind of address that a little bit.”
“You know, I can’t really speak about the past. I can tell you that I am so proud of what we are doing and under Wonya’s leadership, what our development team and what our production teams have been able to accomplish this year,” Vicary said. “And I think looking forward in 2021, and as we look into the future for all of our services, you’re going to continue to see that work being done. And I think that in terms of our casting for our entire productions, whether they’re leads or whether they are secondary leads, we will continue to make sure that people are represented authentically and in the proper way.”
Lucas says she applauds the Hallmark team for “making those changes and choices during a pandemic.
“So we’ve mentioned that before, but just imagine having to do what you would normally do and deliver 66 movies, 40 for Christmas, with a lot of representation in more authentic ways than we’ve ever done before, that’s a huge feat,” she said. “And for me personally, I appreciate what the team has done to move us forward.”