Saturday, September 30, 2023

I write and direct Christmas movies. This Is How We Keep Them New.

  • Sandra L. Martin directs and writes movies she produces together with her cinematographer husband. 
  • They made their first Christmas movie after COVID-19 closed down a lot film production.
  • This is how she keeps titles such as “My Sweet Holiday” fresh in the formula audiences love to see.

This as-told essay is based upon a transcription of a conversation with Sandra L. Martin (a 59-year old filmmaker from Kansas City, Missouri). It has been edited to be more concise and clear.

Like many people, I grew to love old classics. I loved Audrey Hepburn, Barbra Streisand, and that’s what made me fall in love.

Then came Nancy Meyers and her unique style of romantic-comedy, and drama films. When I was younger, she made movies that I could share with my children, such as “The Parent Trap” or “Father of the Bride.”

I remember when I was younger that if I didn’t like the ending of a movie, I would always rewrite it.

Isaac Alongi, my husband, and I both came from small-business backgrounds. Isaac owned a large photography studio for many decades and built a huge Christmas-card company.

He had always dreamed of making movies from the age of 8. But it wasn’t until he began participating in movie projects with his friends that I thought, “Well, what if they did our own project together?”

That’s how he got me started making movies. He helped me develop it, and I was hooked.

He is a cinematographer. We both write and direct the film together. My first film was called “The First.”Trust Fund“, which was released on 2016

A group of people standing looking at what a movie camera is capturing on a film set

Sandra L. Martin believes it’s a “huge task” to keep Christmas movies “fresh.”

Isaac Alongi

It was a huge movie for our first, and was funded both by investors and ourselves. It was a great learning experience, and a lot of fun. I had attended classes and read extensively, but I was still a novice at writing for a budget. I was writing a script to match Isaac’s vision, so I added private jets and trains, as well as sports cars, and a trip in Italy.

We make films mostly for other people. I have directed 12 films, and three Christmas movies in two years. We’ve made movies with companies like Lifetime and Hallmark.

They’ll bring a script, or a book to us and say, “Can I make this movie?” We are then free to create locations and cast. We film it, they give us back the movie, and then they will distribute it to foreign territories and to TV networks like Lifetime and Hallmark.

Production will typically last between two and three weeks. However, I’ll begin writing months or even years in advance. Pre-production is required before we start shooting. It usually takes around a month to complete all casting and logistics.

I hadn’t made a Christmas movie since 2020.

All of our work was canceled when COVID-19 locked us all down. Hallmark usually films its movies in the summer to make them available for the holiday season. However, we heard that they would not be making any movies because nobody could work.

My husband and me decided that if there weren’t going to be Christmas movies, then now would make it. So we got to work.

I wrote the script, and we made our very first Christmas movie.My Sweet Holiday“, in Kansas City in June 2020. It was a learning experience. To stay working during COVID, we took our crew size down dramatically, we ate outside whenever possible, and had individual meals — no buffets. We used lots of hand sanitizer and masks.  

Even the city film commission came to see what we were doing.

It was a learning experience. It was 96 degrees the first day of shooting. We were trying to keep people from sweating on screen by putting them in wool coats.

We had reindeers and learned to use a ski machine. But when the machine is very loud, you need to go back to re-record your dialogue. It is important to be cautious about what you show and what you don’t. In summer, you will see green trees and flowers, as well people in shorts moving past.

This experience taught me the importance of writing for your locations, what you have, and your budget.

This is partly why we decided not to shoot another Christmas movie during summer.

We shot our latest movie, “It’s Christmas Again“In January and March 2022

We filmed the main portion in Franklin, Tennessee. We were able to use decorations put up by the town, which saved us so many dollars. It was difficult because we didn’t have summer colors and the extras weren’t wearing shorts.

We were filming in bitter-cold conditions, and we had to deal with a snow-and ice storm on our first day. The movie is a musical and we were assigned to film in an old school.

It was covered in thick layers of ice when we arrived. The ice was too thick to allow our dancers to safely move there. But, we were able find a new location for 100 dancers, and background actors, at the eleventh hour.

It’s a challenge to keep Christmas movies fresh.

It is easy to fall for the same old pattern of someone moving from a big city to a small community. There is a market for this, but I like to do something different.

Every story is about the characters.

You put them in lovely or funny situations — something where they have to figure out how to make themselves better or how to improve the world. Even if they are all dealing with the same stories it is all about the characters.

Christmas movies are now a big industry. They are so popular, but they have very strict requirements when it comes to what they want to see. They fear that the audience won’t be interested in something new.

They have found something that works well and they deliver it. It’s like a superhero movie — you pretty much know what you’re going to see when you go in.

I prefer movies that are positive, entertaining, and have a happy end. This is my brand, regardless of what kind or genre of movie I make. It’s a natural fit in Christmas.

Families are always looking to do things together, so I love to give them that.

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