Dec. 05--WAKE FOREST -- A lifelong passion for writing has landed a Wake Forest author right in the middle of a full-blown cultural phenomenon: the Hallmark Christmas movie.
Stacey Cotrufo, a best-selling contemporary romance novelist who writes under the pen name Samantha Chase, has had her 2012 book "The Christmas Cottage" made into a Hallmark movie that debuts on the network Saturday night.
"It's very exciting that it's actually happening," Cotrufo said in an interview this week. "We were approached in 2016, and movies move very slowly, so it's been 18 months. That's hard when you're impatient."
In Cotrufo's book, a young woman who has soured on romance -- and on Christmas -- must decorate the honeymoon cottage for her best friend's wedding. The bride-to-be's sexy brother is there to help. They get snowed in and ... there is romance.
Cotrufo knows Hallmark tweaked her story a bit, though. For one thing, according to the Hallmark site, the bride-to-be's brother from the book is described in the movie as the young woman's old flame. The Hallmark plot also adds a love triangle.
"I know they changed it quite a bit," Cotrufo said. "I would like to say I'm OK with it, but that's your baby. It's the first book that got my name out there, my first big hit. But they follow a formula that they know works for them . . . but the basis of it is still there."
Yes, the formula.
The Hallmark Christmas movies in particular tend to have some common themes: someone has almost always lost their Christmas spirit (Cotrufo confirms this is the case in her story); there's often a single mom or dad (almost always widowed) and the kid is adorable and wants their parent to fall in love; there is often some sort of celebration at the center of the movie -- a wedding, a festival or a contest (for instance, ice sculpting or baking); they almost always take place in a quaint, snow-covered, Christmas light-bedecked small town; and they always -- always -- have a happy ending.
Don't laugh. The formula works.
That formula has made Hallmark Christmas movies a hot commodity. The network even releases new ones in July. But the main push -- The Countdown to Christmas -- started this year in late October, with new movies airing each Saturday and Sunday night on the Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. Reruns can be found pretty much 24/7 the rest of the time, especially on the main Hallmark channel.
A special airing of new Christmas movies for five straight nights over Thanksgiving delivered the network's biggest ratings in its history. New movies routinely beat out anything on broadcast or cable channels on those nights (exceptions are usually NFL football and AMC's "The Walking Dead"), but the Thanksgiving week was particularly strong, with a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie starring Danny Glover and Dermot Mulroney airing that Saturday, and a Candace Cameron Bure movie on Sunday. It was the network's most-watched week of all time.
Why are the formulaic films so appealing to so many people?
"It's low-angst entertainment," Cotrufo offers. "It's a stressful time, but you can turn on a Hallmark movie and then you're smiling as you watch it."
The appeal of the happy ending is one thing that drew Cotrufo, a Long Island native who has lived in Wake Forest for 22 years and has been married for 28, to the contemporary romance genre to start with. "It's what I like to read," she said. "And it's something I find enjoyable to write."
Though she's been writing all her life, Cotrufo only began publishing in 2010, when she was inspired by her creative writing students who were self-publishing their own work.
She published "The Christmas Cottage" in 2012, and it sold 10,000 copies in six weeks. "That was my first big hit," she said. "Self-published, no marketing budget, just the right place at the right time."
She challenged herself in 2013 to write a book a month. She ended up writing 10 that year, and self-published them all. One of those -- "Catering to the CEO" -- got picked up for a box set with four other authors, and that's what landed her on the New York Times Bestseller list. Cotrufo, who now publishes through traditional publishers and self-publishes, said she has hit the USA Today bestseller list a couple of times on her own since then.
The two latest releases in her catalog -- "Holiday Spice" and "A Very Married Christmas" -- sound like Hallmark movies in the making.
And Cotrufo confirms that the network is indeed looking at her library of work.
"They're excited to look at more," she said. "If they work with you once and the movie gets a good response, they'll work with you again."
Brooke Cain: 919-829-4579, @brookecain
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