Hannah Pillemer, head of creative affairs at MarVista Entertainment, talks to World Screen about the enduring appeal of TV movies and how the company is innovating various categories of the genre.
Although scripted TV series get a disproportionate amount of buzz and attention, TV movies remain essential staples for linear and nonlinear platforms. If anything, as Hannah Pillemer, head of creative affairs at MarVista Entertainment, explains, demand is increasing. She oversees a slate of 60-plus movies—made-for-TV and indie features. Among the most popular categories are holiday, romantic comedies and family and young adult. Features also include action and horror. MarVista is a leading supplier of movies and is intent on innovating the genre that finds loyal fans worldwide.
WS: What demand do you see for TV movies?
PILLEMER: The movie of the week is back now! There is fatigue with viewers from the commitment episodic series viewing requires. There is a trend for co-viewing weekend movie nights or date night or girls romcom night, and obviously, during the holidays, everyone wants to watch a Christmas movie. Maybe you don’t want to commit to 20 hours of viewing; you want to have a story that has a satisfying conclusion that you can watch in under two hours on your couch or wherever you prefer to watch. There is a demand for these movies now more than ever, and there is an opportunity now to provide interesting stories across a lot of genres in the feature space.
There is also a repeatability factor with a feature that you don’t necessarily have with a series. If it’s your favorite holiday movie or romcom, you might watch it every year or multiple times in a row. Seeing that people continue to show up for these movies, creating new franchises and new evergreen features, is exciting for programmers.
WS: How have you been able to balance giving the viewers what they want, which is that 90-minute or 2-hour story, while innovating the traditional TV-movie categories: romcom, family, YA and holiday?
PILLEMER: Making as many movies as we make, that is always the challenge. How do we treat each movie like a snowflake? How do we make sure we’re doing something new and different while also hitting the markers of the genres that we know the audience is showing up for and wants to see?
The easiest way to get a new story out there is to hire a new voice to tell it. That’s what has always been exciting about working at MarVista and is part of why we exist as a company—we provide opportunity to writers or directors or talent we haven’t heard from who are up and coming and support them as they deliver a fresh perspective. They are going to come at a Christmas movie with a whole different viewpoint; that’s how we are pushing the envelope.
With the success of all the romantic comedies based around the holiday season, we are leaning into producing romances that are year-round—not only set around holidays. We are building a new “Love At” franchise, focusing on unexpected love stories in stunning locations. We have two films that are finished and part of this new “Love At” franchise initiative: Love At Daisy Hills and Love At Look Lodge.
By innovating around spectacular locations for our settings in these films, we are ensuring the audience isn’t seeing a story play out in a familiar place, but that they are getting the chance to escape with these characters into someplace magical and gorgeous. So even if the story is familiar, our movies are visually showing something different that you haven’t seen before.
As for holiday movies, we are always looking for new ways to tell a holiday story. We had our first Hanukkah movie debut on Lifetime last year. We realized Hanukkah and Christmas were happening around the same time and decided to tell a story about two people falling in love where religion doesn’t have to be a barrier to that love. We are going to continue to take advantage of opportunities like this in the holiday space: What new stories can we tell? How can we push the envelope across diverse religions and cultures and celebrate the magic that happens around the season?
WS: What are you hearing from your international partners, given viewers have so many options?
PILLEMER: In the last year, we’ve noticed a bigger desire from our international partners to shape the content at the outset—to get in early and look at the pitches before they go into development and give feedback on what’s working and what’s not. MarVista has made its buyer-first approach a key focus in our development and production of content. It’s not so much that they need this slot to fit a demographic. They are thinking, what stories haven’t we told before, what is going to feel new to the audience regardless of what time slot they are viewing it at. If movies are too familiar [or similar], that can be a challenge for a lot of our partners. So, they want to get in early and make sure there is diversity in the type of stories they are telling, even if it is in the thriller genre. That is a trend we are absolutely seeing: less focus on the slot, and more of a desire to create a diverse slate of movies.
WS: You mentioned thrillers. Historically they have been in demand. Are they still, or are people asking for romances or something more uplifting?
PILLEMER: Last year, we did hear partners say they needed romances. That’s still the case. We are seeing thrillers evolve more into drama territory, providing an emotional drive that resonates with the audience. It’s not enough to have a crazy nanny or crazy ex-boyfriend or stalker. The stakes have to be very high and it’s the emotional connection—whether between husband and wife or mother and daughter or two teenagers—that has to drive the story. And if there is an opportunity to find true stories that have a redemptive or inspirational component to them, that is a need right now. These types of thrillers can be a challenge to find—to be able to craft them in a way that is still suspenseful and [have] the audience still on the edge of their seats to find out what happens. The thriller element is still there, but it’s moving away from the cookie-cutter thriller that we had been focused on two, three or four years ago. Now the demand is for real stories and strong characters where the emotional stakes are high.
WS: MarVista is also producing independent feature films.
PILLEMER: We are pushing into films that will be more elevated in terms of cast and edgier in terms of story. We have four suspenseful genre-hybrid films now that are in the final stages of production.
With our studio platform infrastructure and ability to produce high-quality content at the scale we do, we are seeing a lot of opportunities to take the same best practices that we’ve applied to made-for-TV movies and apply them to the independent film landscape. And we continue to give new opportunities to writers, directors and on-screen talent.
WS: What new titles will you have at NATPE?
PILLEMER: I mentioned the “Love At” romcom franchise. In the family and young adult category, we have Swimming for Gold, starring Disney star Peyton List. She plays a U.S. Olympic swimming hopeful who has to bow out of competing after a mishap. She goes to Australia to coach the men’s team. Through coaching, she finds the courage to compete again. It’s a great movie to program around the Tokyo Summer Olympics. We will have a snowboarding movie in time for the Winter Olympics. And we’ll have three new holiday movies, Grounded for Christmas, Christmas 9 to 5 and Another Christmas Coincidence.