One Royal Holiday a Hallmark movie fit for a Regal Audience
By: Lauren Stannard
It’s that time of the year again! The temperature is dropping, the wreaths are hanging and the lights are twinkling, but one thing is amiss, the festive holiday spirit. Thankfully, there’s a place where one can always find an abundance of infectious joy for the holidays – The Hallmark Channel.
If you’re already a Hallmark channel devotee, you’re in good company. The channel, which targets family programming, premiered One Royal Holiday on Saturday, October 31st. The channel stats indicate it was the highest-rated and most-watched entertainment cable network of the week in Total Day and Primetime among Households, Women 25-54, Women 18+, and Total Viewers. They reached nearly 4.2 million unduplicated total viewers according to a press release from the channel.* In late October they started their Countdown to Christmas which includes other holiday films such as Once Upon a Christmas Miracle and Reunited at Christmas. Hallmark also runs the Sirius XM station 70.
The screenwriter, Julie Sherman Wolfe, an upstate Connecticut resident, spun the traditional “girl meets prince” storyline. Instead of placing the commoner in a foreign land, struggling to navigate unfamiliar traditions and protocols, this film removes the prince and his mother, the queen, from their luxurious castle and places them in the fictitious Connecticut town of “Kentsbury.” The film was shot in Connecticut towns such as Woodstock, Putnam and Hartford.
This Hallmark film was produced by another Connecticut resident, Andrew Gernhard. He and his team at Synthetic Cinema International worked tirelessly to keep the crew and talent safe while filming during the pandemic. While the Covid restrictions created many challenges, it did come with one silver lining, the cast. Since Broadway is temporarily shut down, it opened the schedules of many Broadway stars. As a result, One Royal Holiday secured stage talent such as Laura Osnes, Aaron Tveit, Victoria Clark, Krystal Joy Brown and Tom McGowen.
GIFF was delighted to interview both Julie Sherman Wolfe and Andrew Gernhard.
Enjoy our Interview with Screenwriter Julie Sherman Wolfe:
GIFF: Welcome to the East Coast! You’re a recent West Coast transplant. What made you move across country?
Julie Sherman Wolfe: We have always gravitated toward New England. I have known my husband for 20 years and for probably 18 of those years we have talked about moving to the east with our son. We love weather–rain, snow and nature. Living in Los Angeles it was the same weather all year round and we weren’t happy. My career evolved to allow me to often work over the phone. So really, we could have moved anywhere. We didn’t have to move here but we choose Avon, CT. We love it! It has lived up to all of our expectations.
GIFF: How did you get into screenplay writing Hallmark movies?
Julie Sherman Wolfe: I was always writing as a child. In high school and college there was no internet. So if you weren’t based in L.A. you never really thought of writing movies. I always wrote in the genre of comedy and worked with an improv group, I even worked at a few stand-up comedy clubs in Southern California. Simultaneously, I was a copy writer. That to me felt like a real job.
In 1994, I had just been laid off from my first ad job during a downsize. That same day I got dumped by my college boyfriend. Clearly, I was having the worst day ever! I decided to do a set at a comedy club in La Jolla. It turned out one of the audience members was Ritch Shydner, a writer for Roseanne. He planted the seed that I should be in L.A. writing sitcoms. That was the one and only epiphany in my life, and I knew that was what I needed to do. So for a few months I waited tables saving money and eventually went to L.A. to explore a world of TV/movie writing.
I landed a job as a writer’s assistant which was a great opportunity to learn the business. I worked on the first two seasons of Everybody Loves Raymond. It was a great place to learn and write.
After doing sitcoms, I wrote a few romantic comedies, which led me to tween audience programs. Finally, everything came together to do a movie for Hallmark in 2014. Ever since then it’s what I’ve been doing. I love it! It’s definitely hard but I’m very grateful. And now I’ve created my own little Hallmark world in Connecticut.
GIFF: What are the differences between working on a television series versus a feature film?
Julie Sherman Wolfe: They are completely different. The writers room is a live performance. You must be on all day. Pitching all day. Navigating politics. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lot of fun but with a family it’s easier to manage working on my own films. Now, I make my own schedule but I do work hard and I work every day. I like going into my own world. It’s me and my computer.
GIFF: What was the inspiration for One Royal Holiday?
Julie Sherman Wolfe: The original spark came from Synthetic Cinema International. They brought me on. We wanted to work together. The original notion was to flip the usual story from having the girl brought to the castle and have the royals be stuck in small town. I took it from there. It went from a one-page idea to a 20-page treatment and finally a completed script. Besides moving the king away from his home we also changed the usual mean queen. In this case that character is warm and caring.
GIFF: What were concerns about shooting during the coronavirus pandemic?
Julie Sherman Wolfe: The first one out of the gate was concern something would happen during the shoot. But Andrew’s organizational skills were incredible. He made it so safe for everyone. After the first week or so everyone realized they were in good hands. Unfortunately, it was disappointing to me personally because I was unable to go on-set. Since it was filmed locally, I had hoped I could make daily visits onset, but I was only able to go once. I do plan to write another film set here so hopefully I can spend more time at the next film’s shooting.
GIFF: What was your reaction when all these talented Broadway stars signed onto the film?
Julie Sherman Wolfe: I found out from a text through Samantha DiPippo at Hallmark. It was in all caps because she was as excited as I was. I think my jaw dropped when I read the message. I knew all the actors. I could not believe we got them all. I wondered if I should have written more music into it. One day I’d love to write a musical for them all. But I think that they enjoyed just focusing on the acting.
GIFF: What are you currently working on?
Julie Sherman Wolfe: They just wrapped on Taking a Shot at Love, set in Avon, CT but filmed in Vancouver. That’s scheduled to air on January 2nd.
I have lots in development. I’m always evolving my projects. I’m already working on projects for next Christmas. One that I’m very excited about is top secret! I’d love to tell you more about it because it’s going to be great. I’ll be sure to keep you posted.
Interview with Producer Andrew Gernhard:
GIFF: Can you tell us why you decided to base your production company in Connecticut?
Andrew Gernhard: I was born and raised in Norwich, Connecticut. Then I then went to Southern Connecticut State University. After graduation and years of hard work I established myself as a producer and started Synthetic Cinema International which is headquartered in Rocky Hill located right outside of Hartford. Today I still reside in the state.
GIFF: What was your path to build your career and business in the world of production?
Andrew Gernhard: I started years ago. I had friends who were making very expensive artsy dramas. There weren’t going anywhere. I reached out to a bunch of distributors and they suggested we just walk into Blockbuster video stores and see what people were buying and renting.
To be expected, there were all the major movies. Very little arts and indie films. What they did have was a ton of low budget monster and horror films. So we got into making monster movies and that’s how we began. We sold to Blockbuster, Hollywood Studio, Tommy K’s and Movie Gallery throughout the nation.
Eventually our movies went to Chiller and Syfy Network. Slowly we worked our way to Lifetime, Telemundo and then Hallmark. We like a variety of films. We have done a ton of films with Hallmark: Romance at Reindeer Lodge and Christmas at Pemberley Lodge to name a few. It’s remarkable, they have a huge audience and fan base.
GIFF: What was it like to produce One Royal Holiday during the coronavirus pandemic?
Andrew Gernhard: I say Covid adds 30% more stress into production!
In March we were in production of another movie that was completely shut down. It later moved to Canada. When we started on One Royal Holiday in late May/early June we were one of the first movies to be shot on the east coast. At that point the unions didn’t have their rules and regulations established but we created our own protocols. It took lots of plotting and planning by really good people.
First, we created a little bubble. We conducted multiple tests per week. We limited the number of people at the shoots and cut our shoot time down as much as possible. Everyone wore a mask. There was constant cleaning. A Covid medic was onsite every day. Lastly, we used common sense!
We continue to follow these rules and, knock on wood, we have had zero infections or fear of infections on the first two movies. Now we are on the third and so far so good.
GIFF: One silver lining due to the timing is that Broadway was shut down and opened the schedules of many Broadway actors to star in the film. Can you share some insight on how it was to work with them?
Andrew Gernhard: It was great. I like to stay local. We always strive to pull people from this area-Boston, Connecticut, New Jersey and of course New York. During the time of Covid we wanted the crew to drive in versus taking the train or flying. I believe only two members of the staff flew in. Other than that, everyone drove.
Due to the shutdown of Broadway we really lucked out. Our cast was amazing. They are all so much talent on this film but that being said, we want Broadway to open again to get this talent back on stage.
GIFF: What other obstacles did you have to overcome when shooting this film?
Andrew Gernhard: One major hurdle is the snow! Hallmark holiday movies always have a ton of snowstorms. This production required 6 feet of snow. It was a huge snowed-in situation. It required us to bring in tons of snow blankets and augment with digital shots.
Another is including extras in the film. I’m known for having 200-300 extras, now during production you really don’t want more than 25. You have to remember each extra requires their own testing and a separate area. For One Royal Holiday we had the extras change their clothes and then green-screened them in. Often we duplicated them to get the effect of a larger crowd.
GIFF: What makes One Royal Holiday unique from other Hallmark holiday movies?
Andrew Gernhard: I think due to the time it was filmed a lot of people put a lot of heart into it and it really comes across. Also it’s a little twist on the usual movie cliché of pauper meeting the prince. This one is set in America. It has some twists throughout.
The audience response has been incredible. The reviews and the responses have been overwhelmingly positive. Just look at the tweets, people love it! I believe
One Royal Holiday has had the most popular in ratings and reviews of all of the movies.
GIFF: What other movies is Synthetic Cinema International currently producing?
Andrew Gernhard: We are in post- production of Stalker’s Prey 3 for release on Lifetime. We had worked on the first two and they were hits! The premise is a stalker who befriends a great white shark. The first had great ratings. We finished shooting in October. It will be on Lifetime next year.
Currently, in production we have a movie called Soul Santa which will go to BET and distributed worldwide by BrainStorm Media. The movie is about a man who’s a collector for the mob. He is a loving father and husband, but is currently estranged from his family. Unfortunately, he bets and loses the mobs money. To earn back their money he decides to take a job as a black Santa in a predominately all white mall. It’s hilarious. It has the same feel as Beverly Hills cop and features a bunch of Tyler Perry stars. The release date is to be announced.
*Source: the Futon Critic, 11/03/20, via the The Hallmark Channel press release, Hallmark Channel’s “Countdown to Christmas” Juggernaut Domintes Cable for the Second Week in a Row.