Hallmark Channel Releases its First Christmas Movie with an LGBTQ Storyline
This holiday season, actor Jonathan Bennett is not only continuing his reign as the king of Christmas movies, he's also breaking barriers.
"My agent called me and said, 'Hey, you have a Hallmark Christmas movie offer,' and I said, 'OK, great. Who's my girl?' And they go, 'Jake.' My jaw hit the floor," Bennett told CBS News correspondent Nikki Battiste.
He's starring in the Hallmark Channel's first Christmas movie with an LGBTQ storyline, "The Christmas House."
"Yes, we're just making holiday movies, but they're important," Bennett said. "They make people feel happy, and they bring people a sense of hope and joy."
Between Hallmark and Lifetime, 74 holiday movies are premiering this season. At least five of them feature LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning) couples.
Bennett, who lives in California with his boyfriend, Jaymes, said his goal with "The Christmas House" was to make people feel less alone.
"It feels like I'm a part of progress and it feels really good. I can just imagine what younger me would have thought watching this movie," he said.
It's also a big step for Hallmark. Last year, after criticism from a conservative group, the network pulled a commercial that showed two brides kissing. The network later apologized after backlash on social media.
Hallmark also pledged to diversify the casts of its holiday movies, and it says nearly 40% of its Christmas movies this year feature diversity and inclusion. Lifetime, its biggest competitor, said more than one-third of its movies feature people of color in leading roles. Lifetime also has its first movie about an Asian American family and features an LGBTQ couple in a major storyline.
"It's like a seismic shift in making sure that representation is represented," said actress Holly Robinson Peete, who is starring in two Hallmark movies this year. She's an executive producer on one of them, "The Christmas Doctor," which was written and filmed during the pandemic.
"In the past Christmas movies, we've had these big giant tables full of people. But this year, we were very mindful in having smaller gatherings. So that that would reflect sort of what a lot of people are experiencing," Robinson Peete said.
Filming during a pandemic presented its own set of challenges: actors quarantined, production staff wore masks, and Bennett said he had to gargle hydrogen peroxide before his kissing scene.
"Every three days, the entire cast and crew was tested," actress Rachel Boston said. Her movie, "The Christmas Carousel," comes out next month.
Asked why she thinks viewers love the formulaic Christmas movies, Boston said, "You do know everything's going to work out in the end. And I think there's so much peace that comes from that if the world around you is chaotic."
Psychologist Nancy Mramor said she believes the pandemic will increase the appetite for holiday movies.
"The brain likes things that are familiar to us," she said.
Asked what the metaphor for holiday movies would be, Mramor said, "It's the classic dream that everyone has. The dream of being happy in all areas of your life, and when our lives aren't so perfect, we kind of like to see and gain hope from stories that are really very perfect."
Bennett knows life isn't always merry or bright like in the movies — this year, especially.
His message to fans who may be struggling this holiday season is, "Just remember you're not alone."
"If you feel a little weird this year and everything feels off, that's OK," he said. "But at the same time, have hope because we will get through this."
Hallmark said three of its other movies have minor LGBTQ storylines.