Lights, camera, Christmas! Local man writes TV movies for Hallmark
MIDDLEBURY — The next time you watch one of those made-for-TV Christmas movies on the Hallmark Channel, realize that the idea and dialogue were more than likely the creations of Middlebury resident Kevin Commins.
Commins, 60, is a professional screenwriter specializing in documentaries and feature film scripts. And his talents are drawing particular demand from the Hallmark Channel, for which Commins has penned scripts for around 10 holiday films, with such titles as The Santa Suit and The Best Christmas Party Ever, according to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).
“I have become the ‘King of Christmas,’ somehow,” Commins said with a chuckle.
Commins’ long journey to his status as Santa’s unofficial mouthpiece began more than 25 years ago in Los Angeles — where it ironically never snows.
“I went to L.A. to become an actor, and it just didn’t happen,” recalled Commins, who graduated from Middlebury Union High School (class of 1972) and earned a theater degree at Middlebury College. “There are thousands upon thousands of people who looked just like me that you just can’t wade through.”
That forced the struggling actor to reassess his career path.
“I thought, ‘Well, I’m a reader and I know I can write,’” he said, “so I got a job at a television production company, Chesler/Perlmutter, just doing grunt work, and then started doing script development.”
Of course “script development” largely meant correcting other people’s mistakes. But Commins moved up the ladder to “script doctor” before taking a shot at writing scripts on his own. He has since found more work with television networks as opposed to film studios. The process usually starts with a story idea, for which Commins writes a two- or three-page summary — or “treatment” — of how the story will play out. That leads to the first draft of a full-blown script that goes through various phases of editing.
The first script that Commins sold was for a small, independent feature called Cybermutt (2003) about Rex, a golden retriever with bionic powers who becomes the target of an evil genius who wants to possess the technology. The movie starred Judd Nelson and went directly to DVD, though the Animal Planet TV network aired it at least once, according to Commins.
“It was absolutely thrilling,” Commins said of his Cybermutt breakthrough into the industry. “It’s sort of like having a break in a dam. Once you get the first one under your belt, suddenly other producers will talk to you.”
HOW TO WRITE A MOVIE
He made a point of learning how movies work and the expectations of those who order the scripts.
“There is a definite structure,” Commins said. “It is a three-act structure, and you need to know what goes where.”
In the first act, the viewer meets all of the characters, the location, and what the problem is, Commins noted. The first act usually ends with the protagonist saying he or she will solve the problem. The second act — the most difficult to write, according to Commins — is known as the “complications act.”
“Everything seems to go wrong,” he said of the second act. “This is where you start getting sub-plots that are interfering with the hero’s quest to do whatever it is. The second act almost always ends on a down note. It seems like everything’s lost; you don’t know where to go.”
In the third act, the protagonist gets a spark of inspiration, realizes what he or she has to do to solve the problem, which leads to a climax and — in the case of Hallmark productions — things ending happily ever after.
“That sounds very formulaic, but within that, there’s a billion different things you can do,” Commins said.
After Cybermutt, Commins went on to pen a script for The Cheaters’ Club, a thriller that aired on the Lifetime channel. It’s a story about a killer who stalks three women who are having affairs at the suggestion of their nymphomaniac psychologist, who is also murdered, according to IMDb.
“It seems to be very popular in Eastern Europe; I don’t know why,” Commins shrugged.
It was after The Cheaters’ Club that Commins’ work took a 180-degree turn to a more wholesome genre.
“Hallmark started this (Christmas) franchise that has been phenomenally successful,” Commins said, noting he recently wrote a script for Hallmark’s The Twelve Trees of Christmas that drew 4.4 million viewers for the network premier.
“(Hallmark) is getting the numbers for their Christmas movies that the networks used to get,” he said.
It was Hallmark that came up with the title The Twelve Trees of Christmas, and instructed Commins to write a script around it.
He thought about it and came up with a story about a community that holds a Christmas tree contest to save its local library.
“It ends happily,” Commins said with a chuckle.
Indeed, through the years, Commins has come to learn very well Hallmark’s basic expectations for its shows. And he has tailored his pitches to the network accordingly.
“For a Hallmark movie, it’s going to have a happy ending; it can have romance, but no sex; obviously no dirty language; and it has to be family-oriented,” Commins said. “Their mantra is that they want a movie that the entire family can sit down and watch without anyone being embarrassed. And that’s fine.”
His favorite Hallmark movie script (so far) was for The Santa Suit, which aired in 2010. It features the greedy executive of a toy manufacturing company (Kevin Sorbo, star of the former Hercules TV series) who sets out to provide department stores with Santa Clauses intent on pushing his products to the kids with whom they interact. The story takes a turn when the real Santa Claus casts Sorbo in his image, whereupon Sorbo undergoes a major change of character and finds the true meaning of Christmas.
Commins got the idea for The Santa Suit while driving on the 405 freeway in Southern California on a hot August day with a busted air conditioner. The tune “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” was playing through his head, and he thought of what might happen if someone didn’t want to look like Christmas (aka Santa Claus).
“That story almost wrote itself after that,” Commins said, noting it takes an average of six to eight weeks to write his Hallmark movie scripts.
While Hallmark Christmas movies have become his bread and butter (he writes around two per year), Commins has also delved into other subject matter. He wrote the first season of a show called UFO Hunters for the History Channel, which included interviews with various UFO experts and enthusiasts.
He also wrote the script for a Discovery Channel documentary called Megaquake 10.0, featuring interviews with various geologists and scientists regarding the potential — and possible impacts — of an earthquake measuring 10.0 on the Richter Scale.
Commins emerged from that assignment skeptical of its thesis.
“It literally can’t happen,” he said of such a powerful earthquake. “A continent would literally have to snap in half, or something like that.”
He’d like to do more script writing for documentaries and thrillers. In the meantime, he’s happy being a regular writer for Hallmark movies. Fans can tune in to this season’s offerings, which include Angels and Ornaments, about a romance made possible with the help of an angel; and The Best Christmas Party Ever, about a couple of caterers who meet in competition but end up in each other’s arms. Both movies have already premiered but will run repeatedly through the holidays.
Script writing has allowed Commins to earn a good living telecommuting for his assignments while living in Middlebury, a community that he and his family love. He usually writes scripts during the day and spends a lot of evening hours on another one of his loves — local community theater.
He has been involved with many productions staged at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater, and he and Kathleen Walls wrote the script for the Middlebury Community Players’ recent production of The Story of the Nutcracker. He is currently directing the Middlebury Community Players production of Boeing-Boeing, a French farce set in the 1960s. The play will open at the THT in February of 2015.
Commins feels lucky to have the THT in town.
“It’s an absolute gem,” he said.
Commins last week received word from Hallmark that the ratings for The Best Christmas Party Ever were excellent — 5.4 million viewers on the first day.
“I’m blown away by the number of people who watch these movies,” he said. “Obviously they strike a chord in people.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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