What is a holiday script? There are many holidays in a calendar year, like Easter, Fourth of July, Yom Kippur, Memorial Day, etc. However, if a producer indicates he’s seeking a holiday script, he’s referring to the period that falls from Thanksgiving to New Years. This includes Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and even New Year’s Day. Almost all holiday films open during this time and involve characters in a story that takes place during the holidays.
Producers like holiday stories because they have a long shelf life. The first year an audience attends the theater to see the movie. The next year, the audience buys the movie for their at-home collections. The third year and beyond, the audience watches the movie, with added commercials, on cable channels. In fact, some holiday films can be seen yearly on cable channels, even ones made years ago, like A Christmas Story.
While these movies can encompass any genre, most are family-oriented, comedies or RomComs with an occasional drama. A rarity is a holiday horror, but they do have an audience. Regardless of genre these movies have one thing in common; a strong theme. What most screenwriters don’t understand is that unlike other scripts, the holiday story’s theme is handled differently. First, holiday films have the strongest themes among stories written for the big screen. Secondly, the theme is handled directly, as opposed to a more subtle exploration via subtext (underlying meaning).
A class example of how theme is handled directly can be found in the holiday film The Grinch. A community is consumed with acquiring presents and upstaging their neighbors with holiday decorating. They’ve forgotten the meaning of Christmas. A little girl named Cindy Lou directly asks why they need the presents at all. Throughout the story she continually confronts the issue head-on; Christmas isn’t supposed to be about presents. It’s supposed to be about family. In a holiday film, there’s no need to cleverly conceal the theme in subtext dialogue or metaphoric visuals etc. The screenwriter can state the theme outright and explore it in a very different and direct manner.
For screenwriters who struggle with identifying the theme in their stories, writing a holiday story is an excellent way to practice nailing down the theme before moving to another type of script that requires a more subtle approach to the theme.
The holiday script starts with a theme!
Next, pick the type of story. Holiday films fall under two main categories that I’ll label “Dysfunctional People” and “Holiday Magic”. A story can focus on one or be a combination of the two categories. Let’s take a look at each category:
In The Ref, it’s Christmas when a burglar takes a feuding husband and wife hostage and inadvertently solves their marital difficulties, while learning a few lessons himself.
In Bad Santa, an alcoholic safe cracker befriends a chubby kid and learns empathy and how to be less selfish.
In Four Christmases, an anti-family couple gets stuck with their families for the holidays and learn they want what they feared the most; a family.
The key word is ‘learn’. Each story involves a theme where the dysfunctional person or persons learn a valuable lesson. This lesson MUST change their lives for the better. It should be a lesson that inspires an audience to want to change their lives. The holidays are about inspiration and getting the chance at a fresh start.
A story encompassing the magic of the holidays involves learning to believe in something. I’m not just talking about believing in Santa Claus, although this theme has been explored many times and often isn’t really about believing in Santa, it’s about believing in the magical possibilities in our lives.
Themes under this category often deal with a need to belong, a need for acceptance or recognition. It’s learning one’s own self worth. Films that have explored this magic include Fred Claus, Home Alone, Jack Frost, etc.
Again, the key word is ‘learn’. It’s all about learning to believe in yourself, your world, your family, your career, your abilities, etc. This keyword directly relates to the theme. Remember, the theme is the hero’s arc. The hero changes as a result of the story’s conflict and the lesson he learns becomes the theme.
How do you pick a theme to explore? The best way is to use your own personal experiences. What frustrates you at the holidays? Do you find the holidays stressful? Do you cringe at the thought of the in-laws coming over? Do you dread seeing Uncle Buck and his drooling tobacco habit? Do you hate the mess, the dishes, the crowds, the traffic and the expensive gifts? Do you despise the cousin who brags of his latest six-figure purchase while you struggle to find enough money to put a turkey on the table? Do you dread digging out the ornaments and even procrastinate to the last minute? Do you hate shopping and put it off until Christmas Eve, then rush to pick up gifts for twelve people? Is New Year’s Day just another day?
The best way to pick a theme is to start by writing a paper on your holiday woes. Explore the holiday areas that push your buttons emotionally. Don’t look at the good stuff – holiday films explore the negative side and turn it into the good stuff. Let’s take a look at how this can be done:
Let’s say you dread visiting with Uncle Buck (as noted above). He’s a filthy pig, especially at the dinner table. His tobacco habit is disgusting. He drools and doesn’t care who sees him. You fear him being around the kids or that a pet will get into his tobacco stash. Can this negative experience be turned into a comedy? Can Uncle Buck and the family learn a valuable lesson about acceptance and can Uncle Buck learn to respect other’s viewpoints and leave the tobacco stash at home?
Start with a theme, pick a story category (or combine the two), explore your personal holiday experiences and finally, be aware of two important areas:
THE A-LIST FACTOR
Because holiday films have a limited theatrical window between Thanksgiving and New Years, producers often must attach big stars to help draw in an audience. This means the producer must be able to solicit the star on the strength of the script. This, in turn, means that the screenwriter must be able to compete with the best writers in town to make this cut. The script can’t be good, it has to be great!
THE SANTA FACTOR
Santa has been explored in books, music, animation, films video games, etc. It’s a tough subject to tackle in a holiday film because it’s been overdone. If you decide to go with a story pertaining to Santa Claus, it must be 100% original without straying from things we’ve come to know that relate to Santa Claus. For example, a story where Santa becomes a biker isn’t likely to sell, but take a biker, hit him on the head and have him believe he’s Santa Claus and you might have a hit on your hands.
The exception to the A-List factor and The Santa Factor is holiday scripts written as MOW for cable channels like Hallmark and Lifetime for Women. This market doesn’t require a big-star and often stays within a specific formula of storytelling. MOW’s in this category include movies like The Christmas Card, Meet the Santas, and Mr. St. Nick. If writing for this market, be sure to do plenty of research because a lot of areas have been thoroughly covered and you’ll want to assure that you’re bringing something unique to the table. Also, study the format for cable holiday films. It’s very specific. Do NOT deviate from it.
Writing a holiday script can be inspirational on many levels and can even help a screenwriter improve their craft by learning to explore a theme in a movie. Other holiday movies to consider viewing include: The Santa Claus, The Family Man, The Holiday, A Perfect Holiday, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, A Christmas Story, This Christmas, Surviving Christmas, Deck the Halls, Prancer, Elf, The Family Stone, etc.
Having a holiday story in your arsenal of screenplays has advantages and could be help you break into the industry because most writers ignore this category of films.