Ashley Williams Sparks Hallmark Media’s New Female-Focused Storytelling Initiative

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Director and actor Ashley Williams at Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies and Mysteries Winter 2017 … [+] TCA Press Tour (Photo by Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic).


Hallmark Media (Crown Media Family Networks) has announced a new initiative conceived by actor and director Ashley Williams (Amber Brown, How I Met Your Mother, Jim Gaffigan Show) that aims to enhance diversified content, increase the number of female directors and help propel the careers of female storytellers. Make Her Mark: Hallmark’s Reciprocal Mentor Program will launch in 2023.

“I have loved so much working with the Hallmark Channel for the last couple of years, due in large part to their commitment to female-forward storytelling,” explained Williams in a video message to the Television Critics Association in response to Hallmark Media’s August 10, 2022 announcement at the Association’s bi-annual meeting.

“It’s the kind of storytelling that our viewership keeps coming back to and keeps resonating with. And that’s why I was not at all surprised at the enthusiasm and support that I got from our executive leadership team when I expressed to them an outside-the-box idea for putting more women behind the camera.” Fittingly, Williams’ absence at the live event was due to the fact she was in a production office preparing to direct a movie.

The Initiative

The Make Her Mark program aims to hire more female directors while using the company’s arsenal of accomplished directors to mentor aspiring female filmmakers and create an environment of opportunity. Participants will shadow their Hallmark Channel director-mentors through pre-production, production, and post-production. Following this experience, participants will be hired to direct their own movie to air on Hallmark Channel or Hallmark Movies & Mysteries with the mentor shifting into shadow mode and serving as creative producer.

“Hallmark is a brand built around giving to and connecting with others, and The Make Her Mark program is our gift of opportunity experience, coaching, and guidance for such deserving and talented women in our field,” said Wonya Lucas, President & CEO, Hallmark Media in the announcement. “I hope one day, when she accepts her Emmy or Peabody or Oscar, that she fondly remembers that Hallmark Media gave her that first shot…and then she pays it forward.”

Hallmark Media President & CEO Wonya Lucas at the screening of Hallmark’s “Unthinkably Good Things,” … [+] 2022, Pasadena, California. (Photo by Michael Tullberg/Getty Images)

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This intense immersive approach is a long-term example of Hallmark Media’s focus on female-driven storytelling and will be a long-term commitment to making a dent in the gender inequality that has long existed behind the camera.

Female-Focused Content

Hallmark Media certainly has the content needs to make this happen. Home to Hallmark Channel, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, Hallmark Drama, and the streaming service Hallmark Movies Now, it has become known for its female-targeted original content from movies and series to specials as well as its knack for theme-based promotion (think Christmas in the middle of summer) that proves tinsel-laden and pumpkin spice niche markets can be powerful ones.

This month, the company reported an impressive second quarter with Hallmark Channel ranking as the second most-watched entertainment cable network in total day among Women 18+, as well as #1 on weekends. Research suggests that streaming platforms like Hallmark Movies Now might play a key role in leveling the playing field for women when it comes to inclusive storytelling (Smith et al, 2022).

Gender Discrepancies Behind The Camera

The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s 2022 report “Inclusion in the Director’s Chair: Analysis of Director Gender & Race/Ethnicity Across 1,500 Top Films from 2007 to 2021” spearheaded by Stacy L. Smith, Katherine Pieper, and Al-Baab Khan, highlights the changes and continued gender discrepancies in the director’s chair.

While the percentage of female directors in 2021 (12.7%) and 2020 (15%) was found to be substantially higher than 2018 (4.5%) or 2007 (2.7%) for their sample of top-grossing films, gender inequality behind the camera remains significant. According to Smith et al. (2022), streaming platforms are the future of inclusive storytelling.

Streaming Platforms Offering More Platforms To Women

“These companies have demonstrated that it is possible to create an inclusive slate of films, and this includes employing women of color in significant numbers or percentages. Given this, it is little surprise that audiences continue to seek out content that is convenient and that reflects a greater diversity of perspectives. Streaming platforms have shown that films by a wide array of content creators can find audiences and have done so in a way that leaves theatrical distributors behind. For years, theatrical distributors had the opportunity to diversify their hiring slates but instead, chose to maintain the status quo. Streaming platforms stepped into this gap and as such, are the future of inclusive storytelling.” (Smith et al., 2022)

For 2020 and 2021, the four streaming platforms examined were found to offer more opportunities to women directors than popular films (13.7%) with Amazon leading at 37.5% followed by Disney+ (29%), HBO Max (19.5%), and Netflix (18.1%).

This was also the case with respect to women of color directors with the exception of Netflix which was found to be comparable with top-grossing films (5.3%) in 2020 and 2021. HBO Max (4.9%), Disney+ (9.7%), and Amazon Prime (15%) showed a higher percentage of directors who were women of color.

Hallmark Brand News

Also in the August announcement, Crown Media Family Networks revealed it would be transitioning its corporate name to Hallmark Media.

“The iconic Hallmark brand and our purpose-driven mission to help people live caring, connected lives full of meaningful moments will drive everything we do,” said Wonya Lucas, President & CEO. “The beloved Hallmark brand is associated with positivity, kindness, celebrations, and traditions—all of which are the underpinnings of our content and core values. With these attributes as our foundation, it only makes sense that our company name lead with the Hallmark brand.”

The Make Her Mark initiative coincides with the new name transition, adding another female-driven component to the brand known for female-based entertainment.

Said Williams in the press release, “My gratitude to Hallmark Channel for the years of supporting me as a storyteller runs deep. And now, to work in concert with Wonya Lucas, Lisa Hamilton Daly, Randy Pope and the executive leadership team to create this same support for other female storytellers is some of the most fulfilling work I’ve ever done. This new program is one of several ways Hallmark is committed to diversifying its stories AND its storytellers.”

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