Make the yuletide gay: Inside LGBTQ holiday filmmaking this year

This is the most beautiful time of the year. After answering renewed calls for diversity and inclusion in their 2020 year-end programming, Hallmark Channel and Lifetime are getting back into the holiday spirit with two new movies that put queer characters — and actors — at the forefront of storytelling.

Premiering Sunday on Hallmark, “The Holiday Sitter” follows Sam (Jonathan Bennett), a workaholic bachelor who reluctantly agrees to babysit his niece and nephew before his solo vacation. Completely beside himself, Sam enlists the help of their dashing neighbor, Jason (George Kriss), who is in the process of adopting a child of his own, and soon finds himself caught up in an unexpected romance.

The made-for-TV movie is Hallmark’s first holiday rom-com to focus on an LGBTQ couple. But from the start, Bennett insisted on telling a story rooted in love and family — whether one’s chosen family or biological family — that would resonate with a wider audience.

“This is not a movie just for the queer community; it’s a movie for everyone — it just happens to have two men in the lead roles,” Bennett told NBC News.

Bennett, as an executive producer, originally came up with the idea of ​​a “gay ‘Uncle Buck’ for Hallmark” on the set of another holiday movie three years ago. He played a key role in all areas of the production, most notably in the casting of Kriss, a theater actor from Toronto who brought the right combination of humor, charm and physicality to his self-titled audition.

“It was important that the actor was openly gay and out; it was important to me that we were able to tell the story loud and proud,” Bennett said.

Likening the shoot to a sort of “gay summer camp” with queer creatives on both sides of the camera, Bennett and Krissa recalled the day on set when they realized the power of positive representation.

“We’d look at each other and [be] like, ‘We’re about to film two boys who meet and fall in love in a Hallmark Christmas rom-com,'” Bennett said, crying. “We knew how much it would mean to so many people watching it.”

While “The Holiday Sitter” contains plenty of holiday tropes and tropes, the film also touches on the challenges of adoption in general, with a particular focus on queer people who might start a family with or without a partner.

“Families look different for everyone,” Krissa said. “They come together in a different way, but they are all equally valuable and all equally loving.”

And for the queer community in particular, the “chosen family” is key, Bennett added.

“We had to choose our families in many ways. Part of that is choices like adoption, where you can start your family and create the family you want,” said Bennett, who admitted that working with child actors every day opened up conversations with his husband, Jaymes Vaughan, about “maybe adopting your own children” who were a little older.”

Rising to fame nearly two decades ago in “Mean Girls” — a film that Krissa considers one of her all-time favorites — Bennett revealed he’s also responsible for the teenage classic’s catchphrase (“Stop trying to make fetch happen”) in the finale. version of “The Holiday Sitter”. Bennett admits he’d love to reunite on screen with the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Lacey Chabert, who both starred in new holiday movies this year, but with an added twist.

“I think it would be really fun to tell a Christmas story with them, but let’s switch roles, like, what if Lacey and I are boyfriend and girlfriend, and Lindsay and I do a movie where we play brother and sister?” Bennett suggested playfully. “I think it would be fun to take what we know and turn it upside down, so that way we’re not telling the same story.”

Premiering Friday, Dec. 16, on Lifetime, “A Christmas to Treasure” follows six childhood friends who reunite in their hometown for one last holiday treasure hunt, where sparks fly again between Austin Craig (Taylor Frey), a cautious brand strategist, and his former best friend Everett Matthews (Kyle Dean Massey).

The film is a family affair in more ways than one: Massey and Frey are married in real life, tying the knot in 2016, and their new daughter, Rafa, was often on set during the month-long shoot. And though they recently co-founded and work together at Elevate, a surrogacy and egg donor agency in California, the actors had never worked together on camera until writer-director Jake Helgren approached them last winter with an offer they couldn’t refuse.

“We’ve watched so many of our friends in the industry — straight couples — play opposite each other as husband and wife, because so many of those stories are told on stage and on screen,” Frey said, “so it just feels like really happy moment for us that we can both play such an authentic role together.”

“If there’s one thing I’ve identified with, it’s this whole idea of ​​Christmas traditions and spending time with the people you love,” Massey said. “We both love the Christmas holidays. We’ve been together for over 10 years, so at this point we have shared traditions… and now that we have a little daughter, I think we’re excited to pass those traditions down to her as well.”

For Massey, being able to co-produce a Lifetime movie with her husband, whom she met at a gym in Times Square while performing Broadway shows across the street from each other, is proof of significant progress in the representation and acceptance of the LGBTQ community. in the two decades they both worked in the business. However, Massey said, the disparity still exists: While straight actors can always play gay, openly gay actors aren’t always considered for straight roles.

“I’m really more excited about LGBTQ characters being at the forefront of the story instead of being sidekicks or comedians, because for anyone who’s part of this community, you’re the star of your own life,” Massey said. “Your life is more than dating or struggling with your sexuality. … You have a real life with real relationships and I’m happy to see that being shown more, even in Christmas movies like ours.”

However, not everyone is celebrating the increase in the representation of LGBTQ people on television and in movies.

Last month, actress Candace Cameron Bure revealed that her move from the Hallmark Channel to the Great American Family network stemmed from a desire to show more “traditional” marriages in her TV projects, which critics said implied the exclusion of same-sex couples in the lead roles.

When asked about Bure’s remarks, Massey noted that, of the more than 140 new films set to debut this holiday season, there’s still a lack of LGBTQ representation in a genre that’s supposed to be inclusive.

“It’s such a small, small number. It’s not like we’re taking Christmas away from honest people,” he said.

Responding to Bure’s comments, Bennett said the message of “The Holiday Sitter” is one of “love and inclusion,” and applauded Hallmark for creating “one of the safest places for queer filmmakers to practice their art and create in an environment where from you feel supported from beginning to end.”

After watching “The Holiday Sitter,” people will “feel that Hallmark’s holiday table is bigger than ever,” Bennett added, “and that no matter who you are, there’s a place for you.”