It's not Christmastime until Hallmark says it is.
And the holiday-owning network has officially dubbed it the season, with its 10th Annual Countdown to Christmas officially kicking off this weekend. For the milestone event, 2019's slate is jampacked with 40 new movies across three channels ready for Hallmark lovers to watch every Saturday and Sunday through New Year's Eve.
E! News exclusively announced the line-up for the annual and highly anticipated programming event, which boasts the most star-studded ensembles of leading women and men yet, with a slew of big names making their debut in Hallmark Christmas movies, joining the beloved fan-favorites who've seen surprising success thanks to their relationship with the network. And other stars (and networks) are taking notice, not that Hallmark is all that concerned.
"We own Christmas and we are going to do it in a bigger way and a better way and really speak to the spirit of the season that I don't think any of our competitors do," Michelle Vicary, Hallmark Channel's executive vice president of programming, once told E! News.
That's how they are attracting more talent to the network than ever; Blake Shelton is now producing movies for the programming block, with Dolly Parton also joining the network's stacked roster of talent.
"What I love about those movies is those storylines, they hook you in immediately," Shelton told Today of turning one of his Christmas songs into a Hallmark Channel movie.
What once may have been a punchline on a star's resume has now turned into a coveted gig on one of cable TV's most underrated networks, which is consistently the highest rated in the fourth quarter each year, thanks entirely to its Christmas programming. Along with record-breaking viewership—including its most-watched month ever last December—came record-setting ad sales numbers.
So it makes sense that actors are aligning themselves with the family-friendly network…and proudly so.
Rachel Leigh Cook has executive produced and starred in several projects for the network, including a Christmas movie.
"The content that they make really sits well with where I want to live emotionally, and my heart wants to tell stories that remind people that there is real magic in this world, because there is," the She's All That star told ET Online of why she keeps returning to the network. "Is it like a Hallmark movie, 100 percent no, but I think this can remind us that there is this unbelievable force that is love, and it's the biggest thing in this life, and there should be an entire channel dedicated to it. And dammit, that's Hallmark and I love it."
Of course, you can't talk about Hallmark's Countdown to Christmas without talking about Candace Cameron Bure, with the Fuller House vet earning the titled of Queen of Christmas thanks to her unbreakable ties to the network and its celebration of the holiday.
"I'm just giddy that fans have dubbed me the Queen of Christmas!" Bure told E! News in a statement when the 2019 line-up was announced. "Being a part of the Hallmark family during the holiday season is one of the biggest joys of my career."
Given her popularity with the network's viewers (her annual Christmas films have consistently been the highest rated) and the success its brought to her other projects, Bure and Hallmark's relationship has been a fruitful one and seems to have set the template for other stars, including her Full House little sister Jodie Sweetin.
"She's been so smart about her career and who she is and what she says about who she wants to be," Vicary once told E! News of Bure. "She's been incredibly smart about the role she picks and her participation, as an execute producer, she's really hands on and really smart about it."
Hallmark itself has been really smart about curating an impressive ensemble of leading ladies, many of which have experienced career revitalizations through their collaboration with the network, including Lacey Chabert, Danica McKellar, Holly Robinson Peete and Nikki DeLoach, with other leading ladies like Jen Lilley, Rachel Boston, Erin Krakow and Jill Wagner really establishing their careers on the network.
"I don't want to be the next hottest thing, I want longevity," Lilley told BizJournal, referring to Hallmark's endless cycle of seasonal-themed original movies, adding she is hoping to soon add producer to her title after starring in six Christmas films.
And actors who maybe once thought starring in a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie would be an eye-sore on their IMDB page are now more than honored to talk about being part of the Hallmark family.
When Kris Polaha did his first film in 2015, he recalled, "At the time, I thought maybe I'd do just one film and then hop back onto a network series."
In his "confession" piece for The Hollywood Reporter, the Wonder Woman 1984 actor admitted, "Eight years ago, I could not have imagined that I would be a leading man in several Hallmark movies." But then a funny thing happened...he kept going back.
"Hallmark kept showing me the love and my wife sagely told me to 'Go where the love is,'" he wrote. And five movies and a TV series later, he's still feeling the love.
Jonathan Bennett told Glamour he was just as excited to land his first leading role in a Hallmark movie as he w as his big break in 2004's Mean Girls.
"Both are such amazing guilty pleasure, fun movies to watch," he explained. "There's nothing better than to be involved in a movie that brings so much people happiness."
After likely seeing the streaming numbers when they had Hallmark's Christmas films on their platform for those movies that are equal parts predictable and irresistible, Netflix has quickly started churning out their own original Christmas movies, attracting talent like Vanessa Hudgens, Kurt Russell and Rob Lowe. For their 2019 slate, they added even more movies and a TV series starring Dennis Quaid and Ashley Tisdale.
But in stark and snarky contrast to Hallmark's utterly sincere and wholesome take on the genre, Netflix often seems to be winking at the audience, at once being part of and acting slightly above the genre. When A Christmas Prince inadvertently became a viral hit because…well, it was just bonkers, they doubled down on the hijinks for the sequel.
Bill Abbott, CEO of Hallmark Channel, once told E! News that it's the network's goal to create a "safe space, a feel-good space" in a marketplace that has gone "past the point of edgy," so fans of Hallmark's charming content may not exactly be pressing play on Netflix's movies created to attract the somewhat cynical Grinches and Scrooges.
As for Lifetime, they've taken a similar path to Hallmark in going the sincerer route, as well as courting beloved TV and sitcom stars, often pairing them together in films. The cast of One Tree Hill has done several Christmas projects together for the network's holiday-themed lineup (save Chad Michael Murray who is Team Hallmark), and fan-favorites like Melissa Joan Hart, Keshia Knight Pulliam and Jackee Harry.
But Netflix and Lifetime have yet to take away Hallmark's Christmas crown.
It's consistently the highest rated cable network in the fourth quarter each year, thanks entirely to its Christmas programming. Along with record-breaking viewership—including its most-watched month ever last December—came record-setting ad sales numbers, with the seasonal interstitials and classic holiday hit songs helping to prevent viewers from fast-forwarding through commercial breaks.
The 10th annual Countdown to Christmas s bigger, better and earlier than ever, with the network's 40-movie slate (across three channels, including Hallmark Movies & Mysteries and Hallmark Movies Now) officially starting on Saturday, Oct. 26. (Yes, before Halloween. Sorry Thanksgiving!)
And with the buzz about the Christmas movies bigger than ever, it's safe to say prospective Hallmark stars will be tuning in, just like Patti Murin, who stars in Frozen on Broadway, did in 2018, eventually going on to star in a 2019 offering set to premiere on Nov. 8.
"Just reading everyone's tweets on Twitter, I was like, 'What are these things?'" Murin told Us Weekly of how her Hallmark obsession began. "It's like, giant...I didn't realize it was such a huge trend and such a holiday thing to do."
Plus, the network has gotten really good at making these movies quickly, with most being filmed in a two-week shoot (they are shot throughout the year), meaning a TV actor or Broadway star has flexibility to avoid the dreaded scheduling conflicts that often prevent them from seeking out other opportunities.
And they walk the walk when it comes to their family-first mentality, with Leigh Cook telling ET Online that producers would often put production on hold so she could FaceTime with her kids.
"They knew that my being happy was so directly tied to being able to speak to them and to see them that one time that day. They knew that it was important," she said. "They really put their money where their mouth is when you talk about being a family-friendly network."
Referring to the quick shoots as "boot camp," Chabert told Business Insider that actors "eat, breath, and sleep the movie. It's intense—it's hard to make a movie in 15 days. They know what they are doing."
Seeing as how 2018's Countdown to Christmas reached almost 70 million unduplicated viewers on just the main channel alone, yes, they really do know what they're doing.