Merry, Scary, and Coming Soon
If you enjoy all those Christmas movies the Hallmark Channel cranks out every holiday season, you can thank Joany Kane for her part in that.
That’s because she wrote the first one, The Christmas Card, which broke cable-TV ratings records when it aired in 2006 and garnered an Emmy nomination for its star, Ed Asner — to date, Hallmark’s only Emmy nod.
It also helped kick-start a holiday-movie craze on Hallmark that Kane, a Western Mass. native, appreciates — not only because she’s written and produced about a dozen of them, but because she loves them.
“There was no Hallmark Channel, no Christmas movies on TV” before she started writing The Christmas Card, Kane noted. “You had to go to a theater to see a Christmas movie, and even those were scarce. I wanted to see more Christmas content.”
So she did something about that, and she still is — in fact, her next effort, A Merry Scary Christmas Tale, will shoot in Western Mass. next spring, with plans for a fall 2024 release. Not only is it Kane’s directorial debut, it’s her first foray into a hybrid holiday flick, with one foot planted in the Christmas tradition, and the other in Halloween.
“On Christmas Eve at a remote Massachusetts B&B, a disenchanted candlemaker must survive an evening of sinister merriment in order to find her missing artist aunt,” the film’s pitch reads. Kane said it will be “atmospheric, mischievous, and eerie,” a gothic fable that melds the spirits of Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro.
“In the fall of 2024, we’d like to do a limited-release run, especially in Massachusetts; we can target local theaters and use the screenings for fundraisers for local nonprofits, so we can help the community as well.”
“It’s got Hallmark moments and Conjuring moments,” she said, the latter a reference to the popular horror-film franchise. She stressed, though, that her movie won’t be too scary. “We’ll have jump scares, but also Christmas carols. It’s great fun.”
But amid the fun comes a lot of work, planning, and raising funds.
“Our goal is to raise some local financing and have some investors come in,” Kane said, explaining that the firm has a high-end budget of $811,000 (which does not reflect 25% tax incentives from the Commonwealth), but could be made for half that if necessary. “If we raise at least $300,000 to $400,000 locally, we can bring in a distribution company from Hollywood who will finance the rest for us. They’ll only do movies over $700,000 on the lower end.”
Anyone who invests gets an executive-producer credit, and is also promised their money back plus a 20% return on investment, and also potential profit sharing, not only from the initial run, but in future years.
“It’s a quick turnaround to return their initial investment; then, after that, it’s like getting residuals every time the movie plays somewhere or plays on a streamer or DVD or downloads, depending on how much they’ve invested,” she explained.
Once the movie is filmed in the spring, it will be edited through the summer, with plans to hit the fall convention circuit — Comic Cons and other conventions that cater to genre content, she added.
“We’ll start building a buzz, and then, in the fall of 2024, we’d like to do a limited-release run, especially in Massachusetts; we can target local theaters and use the screenings for fundraisers for local nonprofits, so we can help the community as well.”
That would be followed by a short video-on-demand period in early November and then a premiere on a channel or streamer Thanksgiving weekend, then screening events during December.
All the while, she said, the team would maintain an active social-media presence, airing shorts on TikTok about some of the legends touched on in the script, from Krampus to Pukwudgie, a Native American legend Kane believes will become a popular character due to her movie.
In addition, she’s planning for ‘online happy hours’ building up to the premiere, where she’ll host interviews with cast and crew as well as featuring guests speaking from the holiday or paranormal perspective — or both. She’s also looking to film a ghost-hunting documentary at one or more of the film’s allegedly haunted locations, as well as selling merchandise.
The ongoing actors’ strike could alter some actors’ schedules, but as an independent production, Kane has applied for a waiver that would at least allow the production to proceed — once she gets 50% of the financing in place.
Right now, the confirmed cast included Amanda Wyss and Julie McNiven, along with tentatively planned appearances from Boston-based actor Paul Solet, as well as David Dean Bottrell, Michael Hargrove, Lance Henriksen, Cooper Andrews, and Dee Wallace.
In addition, Jeff Belanger is on board to play himself in the movie, sharing creepy and legends with guests at the film’s Harkness Manor. Belanger is the lead writer on the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures and a celebrity in the paranormal world, Kane noted, and his song “My Christmas Tree Is Haunted” will be included on the soundtrack.
That’s a lot — cast, crew, financing, filming, and marketing — to juggle, especially for someone sitting in the director’s chair for the first time.
Which is an important milestone for Kane, a 1983 graduate of Northampton High School who got her start in filmmaking during the 1990s, working for the documentary production company Florentine Films (co-founded by Ken Burns) and serving as associate producer on several Emmy-winning PBS documentaries.
“I want to make sure we use as many Massachusetts locations, and place as many Massachusetts products, as we can. It’s sort of a love letter to my history and my home neighborhoods.”
Her first completed screenplay was an office comedy, not unlike Horrible Bosses more than two decades later, that drew interest from some Hollywood players, including Bette Midler, who offered Kane “sage advice,” she recalled. To pay her bills around this time, during the late ’90s, she was also working for Lashway Law in Williamsburg.
Kane’s breakthrough success in Hollywood soon followed, as she finished the script for The Christmas Card in 1999 and optioned it to a producer in 2003, who brought it to Hallmark, where it “launched the current Christmas-movie craze we now have,” she told BusinessWest.
Since her success with The Christmas Card, she has optioned or sold more than two dozen screenplays and has had more than a dozen movies made. In 2013, she came up with a streaming service dedicated to turning romance novels into movies and series; she coined the name Passionflix, purchased the domain, and in 2016 formed a partnership to launch the streamer. Passionflix debuted in September 2017.
She’s excited to shoot A Merry Scary Christmas Tale in Western Mass., hoping to get started in early spring, when the exteriors can still be made to look Christmas-y, but the night shoots won’t make the cast and crew freeze.
“We’re doing it independently so we have complete control over quality and creation, and I want to make sure we use as many Massachusetts locations, and place as many Massachusetts products, as we can. It’s sort of a love letter to my history and my home neighborhoods.”
Will Barratt, the film’s cinematographer, is best-known for shooting and producing the Hatchet films, including Frozen, Spiral, Chillerama, and Digging Up The Marrow. He won two Emmy awards in 2002 and was nominated for the 2014 BloodGuts UK Horror Award for Digging Up the Marrow.
Co-producer and co-director Mary Fry specializes in producing feature films and series for an international market, Kane said. Fry has worked on more than 60 feature films and 12 series with award-winning actors such as Kate Hudson, Michael Shannon, Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Snoop Dogg, and Danny Glover; collaborated with Russell Carpenter, who won a Best Cinematography Oscar for Titanic; and produced romantic comedies for Passionflix, Nasser Entertainment, and Caliwood Pictures.
She shares Kane’s vision for a scary Christmas movie — an idea that used to be more common than it is now.
“Telling scary stories by the fireside was at one time a cherished Christmas tradition. That’s how the world got A Christmas Carol. Scary stories at Christmas were as treasured as Hallmark Christmas movies are today,” Kane said, noting that Charles Dickens wrote his classic tale for a Victorian audience that liked to be scared at Christmas. “The cinematic holiday content we enjoy today started with a ghost story.”
With A Merry Scary Christmas Tale, Kane is hoping to revive the once-beloved tradition of telling scary stories at Christmastime — and hopes that, like A Christmas Carol, her film becomes a classic that’s rewatched each holiday season, generating profits to pour into more movies.
“Hopefully this will become like Paranormal Activity or the Conjuring series — a little movie that does insanely well. Then we can have a base in Western Mass., a production company to crank out a lot of fun content that honors the area and its communities.”
Kane’s affection for Halloween fare is reflected in other ways; she recently launched Coven Cons with the goal of hosting conventions that celebrate the witch in pop culture.
And her love for her home state is even more deeply ingrained.
“Massachusetts is such a magical state — so much beauty, history, and a lot of cool legends. The people are fun to hang out with, and there’s a lot of great ingenuity in Massachusetts.
“So it’s great to bring all that together and make really cool movies,” she went on, adding that she’s interested in drawing on Massachusetts-based writers who have penned scary stories, including greats like Edith Wharton. “We’d love to turn those into movies. My goal is to focus on stories that would be great to premiere any time from September to December.”
Viewers will have that experience as soon as next fall — that is, if the coming year’s efforts prove more merry than scary to Kane and her team. Anyone interested in investing in the project should email [email protected].