Weird Rules Hallmark Movies Follow

While some movie watchers are filling their Letterboxd with classic films like "The Godfather" and "Citizen Kane," others are just turning on the Hallmark channel to see what new feel-good flick is airing. Serious cinephiles might have a problem with the latter, but they can't deny how insanely popular Hallmark movies have become. And for some viewers, they're incredibly meaningful. As Christina Figliolia, a co-founder of Christmas Con, told Empire, "We had people coming up to us literally crying, telling us that these movies meant so much to them." Hallmark movies are more than just movies to a lot of people.

The Hallmark Channel movies are not the most complicated films of all time, but there is a clear method to the magic. As one Hallmark screenwriter told Entertainment Weekly, "All you have to do is diagram it. You watch and write down every beat that happens in every act and then you just go through it and go, 'This is the model, this is the map,' and then you just hit all those beats and go to Hallmark." Pretty simple, right? Well, for every beat that needs to be hit, there are several beats that can't be hit; Hallmark has loads of guidelines for the movies. So before you pick up a pen to write the next big Hallmark hit, become familiar with the rules detailed below.

Hallmark movie characters can't get drunk

Even for the most seasoned actor, playing drunk believably can be rather challenging. Luckily for Hallmark actors, they don't have to worry about giving a convincing drunk performance. While a character may casually sip an alcoholic beverage, no one gets three sheets to the wind in Hallmark movies. As an anonymous Hallmark movie writer told Entertainment Weekly, "You can have somebody get drunk in a Netflix movie, but not a Hallmark movie." Needless to say, if you are looking for a movie that is packed with inebriated shenanigans, that movie doesn't exist on the Hallmark Channel. 

But given Hallmark's wild popularity, other networks, as well as streaming services, are producing similar content to compete with the greeting card network. And as the aforementioned writer pointed out, there's a tad more freedom that comes with those alternative options. "Now the production companies are starting to move into the Hallmark competitors, like Netflix and stuff, who are looking for similar stories, but maybe with slightly laxer rules," the writer said. Think of it this way: you can watch a Hallmark movie with your grandparents without feeling at all uncomfortable, but if you dive into Netflix's content, there could be some awkward moments.

Emotions can't be too extreme in Hallmark movies

If you've ever watched a Hallmark movie and wondered how the characters can stay so unaffected by the calamity that's befallen them, you're not alone. And it's by design. Hallmark movies aim to keep everyone happy. Obviously there needs to be some sort of conflict in order to have a plot, but emotions, for the most part, need to stay at bay. As seasoned Hallmark actor Nikki DeLoach told Empire magazine, "Instead of being angry or full of rage, you have to lighten it and be frustrated." 

And it's not just the actors who have to be mindful of keeping things emotional, but not too emotional — especially when it comes to love interests. As an anonymous Hallmark movie writer told Entertainment Weekly, "They can't not like each other too much. One of the problems of writing a Hallmark is that you cannot have too much conflict, but somebody has to be angry." Ah, to live inside a Hallmark movie. If heightened emotions are what you like in a movie, we suggest turning your television to Lifetime Movie Network, a channel that thrives on overly emotional reactions.

But they do want to make you cry

While the folks in charge of Hallmark Channel's movie roster want the actors to keep their characters' emotions relatively in check, they also want their audience to shed major tears. Karen Schaler, a Hallmark movie screenwriter, dished to Bustle about the parameters she had to follow for her script to make it to screen. "'If I'm not crying, I'm not buying.' Those were all rules I heard," Schaler said. For those interested in writing Hallmark movies, if you can't evoke tears from a viewer, your script won't pass muster.

The Hallmark execs are choosy about what it is that makes you cry, though. As an anonymous screenwriter told Entertainment Weekly, "It's comfort food and I guess a lot of people like that nothing is going to rattle them. No cannibalism, no brutal murders, nothing like that." If you're crying, it's because a widower with a high-paying job left the city to take care of his child in his hometown and his child now approves of his relationship with a local who had to fight tooth and nail for said child's approval ... or something like that.

Hallmark Christmas movies must include snow

If you thought there were lots of rules for regular Hallmark movies, just wait until you hear all the rules for Hallmark Christmas movies. As one anonymous screenwriter told Entertainment Weekly, "The first rule is snow." The source continued, "They can't be waiting for the snow, there has to be snow. You cannot threaten them with no snow." A second writer added, "They always like Christmas activities like gingerbread-making contests, snowman-making contests. They like to have that stuff scattered throughout the whole thing, so there's always some sort of Christmas element going on." If you turn on a Hallmark movie in December and don't see snow, hell hath officially frozen over.

The snow is as fake as it is essential. As actor Lacey Chabert told Entertainment Weekly (via Woman's Day), when they film Hallmark Christmas movies, the weather outside is a different type of frightful. "Typically, they are shot in the summer, and you're in coats, scarves, gloves, and cashmere, and it's 110 degrees outside," she said. "You're sweating and trying to act cold."

A Hallmark holiday movie's set design has to check certain boxes

A Hallmark Christmas movie set will feature a heck of a lot of snow and Christmas-themed tchotchkes, but as Empire notes, it won't include any overt religious symbols. For example, you will see Christmas trees, but you won't see crosses. And when it comes to Christmas decor, it's a true "the more, the merrier" situation. As production designer Ginna Scotto explained to the outlet, "A normal person wouldn't go out of their way to change all of their towels and their bedspread to Christmas, but in Hallmark land you do. ... Just have as many wreaths as possible, I can't stress that enough."

Director and writer Ron Oliver echoed this sentiment. "There has to be Christmas in every scene, in every frame," he told Bustle. "In a horror movie you're running for your life ... in a Christmas movie you're running to [decorate] the tree." The holiday set design guidelines goes for Hallmark Halloween movies, too; you'll see leaves and pumpkins aplenty, but don't expect Ouija boards and pentagrams to be popping up on your screen.

Sticking to a theme is crucial in a Hallmark Channel movie

One of the reasons Hallmark movies are so popular is because they know how to commit to a theme. And, like everything in Hallmark-land, it's completely by design. As a Hallmark screenwriter explained to Entertainment Weekly, "There cannot be a single scene that does not acknowledge the theme. Well, maybe a scene, but you can't have a single act that doesn't acknowledge it." And that's exactly why Hallmark Christmas movies are so ... extremely Christmas-y. 

And while it's easy to point to Christmas movies as examples, this applies to other themed Hallmark movies as well. Per another anonymous screenwriter, "The wedding movies on Hallmark are the same; you can't have enough wedding things!" Hallmark wedding movies aren't quite as popular as Hallmark Christmas movies, but they achieve the same goal of getting viewers in the mood for a wedding. "It's the same kind of thing where they just overload it with whatever the seasonal thing is. They like to hit you over the head with the seasonal club," the writer added. Since that's the case, consider this our formal request for Hallmark to ramp up their Thanksgiving movie production as there are far too few Thanksgiving movies.

A Hallmark script has to follow a particular structure

Whether it's a movie, novel, essay, or otherwise, structure is an important part of writing. But structure takes on a new importance when it comes to Hallmark movies. In fact, it's so important, the writers don't have much wiggle room when it comes to the network's script structure. It sounds a little more intense than it really is, though; there are writers who like writing according to the set guidelines. As an anonymous Hallmark movie writer told Entertainment Weekly, "They have a really rigid nine-act structure that makes writing them a lot of fun because it's almost like an exercise." They went on to add that writers have a good sense of their characters' goals because of the structure, as well as when those goals need to be met. It makes the plots somewhat predictable, but that's all part of the charm of Hallmark movies.

The structure can take some getting used to, though. As another writer said, "On our first couple, because we didn't know what we were doing quite yet, Hallmark gave us really extensive notes, but it was just because we didn't totally understand the structure." Once that structure becomes ingrained, churning out Hallmark movie scripts becomes second nature.

There are certain words that can't be used in Hallmark flicks

You could go your entire life without watching a Hallmark movie and make the correct assumption that curse words aren't allowed on the network. However, if you pay closer attention, you'll find that there's actually an entire lexicon that's off-limits. As one screenwriter told Entertainment Weekly, "You're not allowed to use the word hate or the word crazy in Hallmark. Everything goes through a mildness filter." The screenwriter continued, "You have to mild-ify everything that you do just to kind of take all the edges off. It's like everything gets sanded, filed down so the sharp edges come off." Don't turn on Hallmark expecting to hear the F-word.

While all these writing rules sound a bit suffocating, the screenwriters are actually grateful to have some boundaries. "It's helpful in that you don't have that many choices. The blank piece of paper isn't so blank." And if getting your film to play on Hallmark is your goal, it's important that you follow the rules. As the writer noted, the network knows exactly what it wants, and anything that doesn't meet the criteria doesn't get produced.

The feel of a Hallmark movie is very important

We can all name a movie we love simply because of how it feels. And we're not just talking about how we feel when we're watching it (although that's important, too) — we also mean the tone of the movie. All Hallmark movies are designed to have a certain feel about them, particularly Christmas movies. As screenwriter Karen Schaler told Bustle of Hallmark Christmas movies, "It has to feel good, it has to be uplifting, it has to take you to a magical place, it has to make you feel safe."

And as some screenwriters will tell you, the feel of the movie is arguably more important than the dialogue, again, particularly regarding Christmas movies. Per a screenwriter who spoke with Entertainment Weekly, "It's more, I think, things that people need to see, rather than things that people need to hear. Especially at Christmas, they need to see Christmas s**t going down; they need to see that ice skating, that big tree." Like death and taxes, you can be certain that a Hallmark Christmas movie is going to be undeniably Christmas-y.

No sex in Hallmark movies whatsoever

When you're watching a Hallmark movie, you're likely going to see a few things: a man and a woman fall in love and kiss at the end, an executive leave their dream job to move to a rural town, or a will-they-won't-they couple finally get back together on a holiday — and quite possibly all the above. But there's one thing you absolutely won't see: sex. Hallmark has a strict rule against sex scenes. As one writer told Entertainment Weekly, "Any sexual is too sexual." The writer continued, "I've said it's like writing a movie in the '40s, but then I look at a movie from the '40s and it's edgier, so it's not like writing a movie in the '40s. They don't want anything to offend anyone."

In general, there is not much PDA to be found in Hallmark movies. As screenwriter Sherman Wolfe told The Guardian in 2023, the main love interests usually only share one kiss at the very end of the flick. And, of course, the smooches are reined in. As actor Brennan Elliott explained to Empire, "[W]e can't look like we're ravaging each other on some late-night show."

Hallmark Christmas movies have to have happy endings

If you want to watch a Christmas movie with a sad ending, watch "Last Christmas" or Laura Linney's scenes in "Love Actually." The Hallmark Channel, on the other hand, probably won't serve you what you're looking for; Hallmark Christmas movies are only written with happy endings. As screenwriter Joany Kane told Bustle, "We all know how the movie ends. What makes these movies magic is the journey they take us on. The reason for the enormous popularity of these movies is that the fans of these movies want to feel: They want to feel love, to feel hope, to feel joy."

And Kane is right. Hallmark's reputation as a movie network has been built on an array of feel-good movies, particularly around the winter holidays, that evoke those aforementioned emotions in a way that only Hallmark can. While there are plenty of reasons to criticize Hallmark films, there's also a tremendous amount of respect that needs to be had for them. What other network is pulling in viewers in droves year after year for the same exact reason? And as another screenwriter said to Entertainment Weekly, viewers can continue to count on the network to stick to this surefire formula: "If they ever had a Hallmark movie where things didn't work out in the end, I don't know what would happen. I think there'd be mass riots." Assuming the network wants to avoid mass riots, we can count on this December to be the exact same at Hallmark as last.