A Chicagoland Christmas

Why do so many Christmas movies take place in Chicago? Home Alone’s Wet Bandits tore apart the northern suburbs in 1990 while National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation shot some of its establishing shots in the Loop in ’89. Vince Vaughn brought Fred Claus to town 15 years back, while Office Christmas Party found Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston, and Olivia Munn terrorizing a downtown high-rise back in 2016. 

It’s anyone’s guess as to why so many movies think “Chicago” in the same breath as “Santa,” but it’s a trend that shows no sign of slowing down, particularly as streamers, niche cable networks, and (shudder) Candace Cameron Bure have doubled down on making Christmas content. This year alone, there are 170 new holiday movies across all networks and streaming platforms, from big budget productions like Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell’s Spirited to the much smaller Holly & the Hot Chocolate, which marks QVC’s first foray into the Santasphere. More annual holiday movies seems to have meant more work for Chicago’s film industry, too, with at least four distinct holiday movies being filmed within the city’s confines last year.

Buffalo Grove resident Adam Rockoff can take some credit for Chicago’s Christmas film boom, having written over a dozen different Christmas movies, including A Merry Christmas Wish and A Royal Christmas Engagement. Rockoff says he got his start in the biz by writing thrillers and horror movies. When some of the former got picked up by channels like Lifetime, he began working with what he says are “five or six large companies in LA,” any of whom might ask him to pen some heartwarming holiday fare. Rockoff acknowledges the limitations of the oft cheesy genre, but says he relishes the challenge of having to write to a particular set of parameters. Plus, he jokes, “There are a lot of worse ways to make a living.”

One of Rockoff’s latest creations is Crafted for Christmas, a potential future classic being shot this winter out in Buffalo Grove. The second Christmas movie bankrolled by Chicago’s Throughline Films, Crafted for Christmas tells the story of a hardened big city reporter who’s forced to take a break from her political beat in favor of a puff piece about a small-town toy company run by some ruggedly handsome craftsmen. Anyone with half a brain knows what happens from there, and that’s sort of the point. 

Throughline co-owner John W. Bosher says that about two-thirds of all holiday movies airing on TV these days are made on spec, meaning that production companies foot the bill to make them, all in the hopes that a network or streamer then buys the rights to air the movie. Because companies like Throughline are looking to actually sell their movies, be it to Hallmark, Lifetime, or Great American Family (GAC), Bosher says, “We don’t want to take any big swings. If we do something that Lifetime’s OK with but Hallmark and GAC wouldn’t be, then we’re limiting ourselves. You don’t want to lean too heavily in any one direction.” 

Crafted for Christmas perfectly threads the network needle, avoiding too much talk of Santa or religion, too-recent relationship drama, or anything that might suggest a Chicagoland Christmas isn’t all fluffy white snow and peacoat-appropriate weather. 

“The Christmas that we’re trying to sell is one that’s nostalgic and where everything’s pleasant,” Bosher says. “You don’t want to see your actors shivering, and you don’t want to see the ugly side of winter, like gray street sludge on the curb.”

That’s probably why Bosher and company have chosen to shoot Crafted for Christmas out in the burbs, where quaint main streets abound and local business owners are all too happy to open up for some festive cheer. “It’s so much easier to get someone’s cooperation if you tell them we’re making a Hallmark-esque Christmas film than to go into someone’s business and say, ‘Can we stage a quadruple homicide here?’” Bosher jokes. “There’s not a lot of weight in the material, and the productions can have kind of a light atmosphere.” 

Throughline is shooting Crafted for Christmas at a number of local businesses, like WTTW’s news studio in North Park, a toy factory in Vernon Hills, and at the Cherry Tree Inn B&B in Woodstock, which also acted as Bill Murray’s temporary residence in Groundhog Day. At the B&B, Bosher says, Crafted’s art department is working in tandem with the business owners to seamlessly blend their decoration plan for this holiday season with what the movie thinks would look good on camera. “That way,” Bosher says, “it gives them some free labor, gives us some cost savings, and in the end, everybody gets a beautiful product that they’re happy with.” 

Production designer Ania Bista knows how that works, having made Chicago Christmas magic happen onscreen in movies like Hot Mess Holiday, a Comedy Central movie about both Diwali and Christmas that came out last year. Like most festive fare, Hot Mess Holiday didn’t actually shoot in the winter, giving Bista some distinct curation challenges. These days, it’s certainly easier to order a bunch of fake Christmas trees online than it was even a decade ago, but that doesn’t mean Bista is a fan of the practice. “I would prefer to see things in person so I can really see the scale, the quality, and the color,” Bista explains. “Buying and renting locally is always preferred.” 

Throughline Filmsthroughlinefilms.com

For Hot Mess Holiday, Bista says, that meant trekking north to Loves Park, home of the Ambrose Christmas store. Open just six months a year, the holiday emporium keeps a hefty stock of all things Christmas and was willing to open its doors off-season for Bista and her reasonably generous checkbook. 

Bista says, “I was able to send either myself or a team member out there to buy everything in person. It was great to be able to support them, too, because I was able to get everything I needed in a matter of weeks rather than hoping some Amazon order was going to come in time.” 

When Bista was done with her holiday glitz and glitter, she even thought to pass some of it along to local prop shops, like Zap Props in McKinley Park. Shop owner Madeline Rawski-Edquist says she’s now the proud owner—and renter—of a cute pink Christmas tree courtesy of Bista and Hot Mess Holiday. She’s added it to her stock of holiday gear, which includes antique toys featured in Home Alone 2 and a pair of five-foot-tall nutcrackers viewers might recognize from Office Christmas Party

“It’s always interesting to see what you get a request for,” Rawski-Edquist says, musing that while the three full-sized Santa sleighs she has in stock are always rented out around the holidays, she “could always use more thrones” for Jolly Old Saint Nick. Those, she says, she knows she could rent. Fake snow mounds, too. “I don’t have any of those,” Rawski-Edquist says, “but I wish I did.”

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