Delving Into Originals

Hallmark Movie Channel’s initial push into original programming will start small.

The service, which bowed last April, has established a relationship with the Maurice Kanbar Institute of Film & TV at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, under which select student films will make their way to Hallmark Movie Channel’s air. The partnership was announced at a press lunch, where the network and sister service Hallmark Channel unveiled their 2009-10 upfront strategies.

Beginning in October, the shorts, celebrating the human spirit under the “Film Positive” banner, will be sprinkled around Hallmark Movie Channel’s various dayparts and time slots. Available in standard- and high-definition formats, Hallmark Movie Channel, which currently counts some 15 million homes, expects to double that base by the time it becomes Nielsen-rated in first quarter 2010.

The initial goal, according to network officials, is to launch in a block with four films that could range from three to 20 minutes. The shorts, also accessible on, would have to meet certain brand-defining criteria in order to make the on-air grade.

Tisch alumnus Alec Baldwin (30 Rock) has agreed to be on a panel of judges who will vet the films.

Speaking at the event, Henry Schleiff, CEO of Crown Media, the parent of the services, listed such other notable Tisch graduates as Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Billy Crystal and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, as potential judges.

Hallmark Movie Channel offers a combination of theatricals, “Hallmark Hall of Fame” presentations, Hallmark Channel telefilms, plus miniseries and other event programming.

David Kenin, executive vice president of programming for Crown Media said it was critical for Hallmark Movie Channel to give rise to its own voice, and original productions are integral to brand definition.

To that end, Kenin is eyeing a group of more traditional full-length films. Mindful of costs in the current economic malaise, Kenin said he has a project in mind centering on a group of friends and their various relationships. Multiple movies could be shot at the same time, cutting development and location costs. He said production could begin in 2010, paving the way for possible air dates in 2011.

As for the flagship service, Hallmark Channel continues to expand its slate of original telefilms: the network plans to air 35 original movies in the 2009-10, the most of any TV channel, and up from 30 in the current season.

Using the word “predictable” as a significant programming asset in an unpredictable world, Schleiff said Hallmark delivers feel-good films on Saturdays at 9 p.m. The strategy has played to good Nielsen effect: 2009 year-to-date, Hallmark original movies have averaged a 2.4 household rating and 3.8 million viewers in their premieres. Demo growth has been strong among target groups adults 25 to 54 and women 25 to 54, up 26% and 30%, respectively.

They also encore well as evidenced by Relative Stranger, starring Eriq La Salle (ER) as a former football player who returns home to the family he abandoned years earlier. The film’s debut on March 14 tackled a 1.6 rating, while its March 20 encore the following Friday night earned a 1.5.

Currently, Hallmark has a number of films in production, including Mrs. Miracle, the story of a frustrated widower and the father of twins, who finds a seemingly magical housekeeper at Christmastime; A Soldier’s Love Story, in which overseas missives trigger a love story; and Uncorked, in which an executive most choose between her career and a handsome chef in the wine country.

Continuing to feed its holiday programming push, Hallmark has Christmas in Canaan, The Christmas Gift and The Night Before the Night Before Christmas in its pipeline.

Additionally, the service has many projects in development, notably Home Sweet Home, Puppy Love, Shadow on the Mesa, The Wild Girl and Working Miracles.