A very merry Hallmark holiday: Why the Christmas movie industry loves to film in Ontario

Ontario’s biggest export? Holiday cheer. We spoke to actors and producers about why the multimillion-dollar Xmas movie industry loves to film here

It’s a month before Christmas, and a high-powered executive gets stuck in a picturesque small town for the company’s latest project and hits it off with the approachably rugged local bar owner. Or two bakers in an unnamed but decked out town are battling for the honour of baking the city’s annual holiday party cake — and end up falling in love in the process. When it comes to made-for-TV Christmas movies, you can’t always predict the vaguely familiar storylines, but there’s something else you can bank on: it was probably filmed in Canada, and your screen will probably be filled with a whole bunch of Ontario actors.

In 2022, Christmas movies dominate the holidays, with over 160 holiday movies slated for the season, and channels, including Hallmark, Lifetime and Netflix, getting in on the action. Recent estimates have found that Hallmark Channel relies on its Christmas movies for a third of its annual ad revenue. And yet for such a lucrative American-based industry, it’s Canada and, in particular, Ontario and Toronto that are feeding the need for these Christmas films. How did we become the unsung heroes (and undersung faces) of the multimillion-dollar holiday movie industry?

“We’ve made a few movies in Toronto and Ottawa, lots of movies in Hamilton and some just north of Toronto as well,” says Jesse Ikeman, chief creative officer — informally the chief Christmas officer — of Toronto production company Vortex Media. Vortex is one of many Toronto-based companies that produce a large number of holiday films for networks including Hallmark, Lifetime and the W Network.

Ikeman says so many of these movies are made here for three main reasons: financial benefits, location  and reliability of the talent and crew here. “We’re based in the north, and doing Christmas movies takes a certain amount of specificity to achieve the tone and the feeling that an audience wants. You need fake snow, it needs to be white and pretty,” he says. “ I would say there’s also exceptional craft, through the technicians on set, visual effects and special effects, and there is exceptional talent in the casts available in Toronto along with Montreal and Vancouver.”

Leif Bristow, founder of production company Leif Films that is behind countless TV movies and Christmas movies, says the history of Canada’s role in this industry is a little more than that. “In the 1980s, when Canada was trying to emerge on an international basis, the country provided a new way of funding through Telefilm [Canada] and tax shelters. And over the last 40 years, we’ve obviously matured into a place where you can have 100 productions running in Ontario at any given time, and we have a crew base that’s second to none in the world.”

“From an economics point of view, Ontario and Vancouver — but Ontario differently than Vancouver — truly did become Hollywood north,” he says. “The studios always go, ‘Oh, we get 25 per cent back in tax credits and our dollar is worth 30 per cent more, so it’s 40 per cent cheaper to film in Canada.’”

To get those tax credits, some of which come from organizations such as Ontario Creates and some from the federal government, production companies must meet certain requirements in terms of filming locations and Canadian cast and crew targets. To qualify for the Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit, which provides a tax credit for 25 per cent of the qualified labour expenses, for example, at least one of the two highest paid lead performers must be Canadian along with a director or a screenwriter.

Michael Prupas, president of independent production company Muse Entertainment, says many of the holiday movies Muse produces follow this formula to take advantage of the tax credits. “Very often, our leading man is a Canadian, and our leading woman is an American. And that’s because we’re always producing these films as Canadian content films, we’re developing these products ourselves, and in order for it to qualify, we have to have a Canadian lead actor in one of the top two roles, and usually a Canadian director,” he says.

Brittany Bristow (left)

According to Bristow’s daughter Brittany Bristow, who has acted in over 30 TV movies and series since her breakout role in the Christmas classic Blizzard when she was 11, these tax credits have helped open the door for deserving Toronto and Canadian actors. “The Toronto film industry is booming. I was a supporting character for a long time before I was given the opportunity to step into the leading lady shoes, and I think there is space for that, especially for Toronto actors,” she says. “It’s a really great opening for people who want to get into the industry.”

Tyler Hynes (left) in Three Wise Men and a Baby. Courtesy 2022 Hallmark Media/Photographer: Bettina Strauss

Tyler Hynes, a Toronto-based actor who starred in Hallmark’s Three Wise Men and a Baby with fellow Canadians Andrew Walker and Paul Campbell this season, agrees that these films are giving Canadian actors unique opportunities. “They use these movies as an avenue to grow and get used to being on set, and you can sharpen your tools as an actor on these movies,” he says. “I think they absolutely give opportunities for actors to get experience, and to build an audience as well. And a career trajectory as well; I’ve seen actors who are playing my brother or the ex boyfriend or the friend start to become the lead, and it’s a beautiful thing.”

Take Ontario’s Luke Macfarlane, Christmas movie darling since 2015 who became a bona fide movie star in the groundbreaking queer Hollywood romantic comedy Bros this year. In an interview with Vanity Fair, he noted: “I hope that people understand that [Hallmark] gave me jobs when other people weren’t giving me jobs.”

The Christmas movie industry has been doing something that unfortunately nothing else has been — providing true job opportunities for a legion of Canadian actors. Wynnona Earp’s Kat Barrell says her career with Hallmark has allowed her to actually be “busy and working.”

Kat Barrell. Courtesy 2022 Hallmark Media/Photographer: Craig Minielly

“I would rather be doing this and be able to raise my son in Toronto and be close to my parents rather than going down to the United States, rolling the dice and possibly never working,” she says. “I always say I think one of our greatest exports in this country is, unfortunately, our talent. I think if we keep creating amazing work and enough work that we can keep our talent here and people don’t have to leave, I think that gives us more power.”

Suzanne Berger, vice-president of production at Toronto-based production company Neshama Entertainment that produces Christmas movies year-round, describes Ontario as the perfect place to create these kinds of movies.

“We have really skilled crews, actors and directors. We have really good film and television programs, so we have young graduates feeding into the lower budget side of things. We have straightforward tax credits. And Ontario has a special extra bonus because of the Stratford and Shaw festivals, where actors have other places to make a living,” she says. “It’s a really healthy ecosystem.”

Ontario has created an idyllic community of its own to parallel the ones we romanticize onscreen. The actors are supported and often guaranteed reliable work. The crews are trustworthy and experts in their field. The weather is mild, made for just-snowy-enough sets. The cost is just right. Hey, we may not get credit for masquerading as an insert-here small American town for the thousandth time. But it’s all right. What can we say? It’s all very Canadian.