- Sandra L. Martin writes and directs the films she produces with her cinematographer husband.
- They made their first Christmas movie in 2020 after COVID-19 shut down much film production.
- This is how you keep titles like “My Sweet Holiday” within the format the audience wants to see.
This article is reportedly based on a conversation written with Sandra L. Martin, a 59-year-old filmmaker from Kansas City, Missouri. Edited for length and clarity.
Like many people, I grew up watching the old classics. I loved watching Audrey Hepburn and Barbra Streisand, so I fell in love with this style of filmmaking.
This carried over to directors like Nancy Meyers and her own style of romantic comedies and dramas. I made movies that I could watch with my kids when they were younger, like “The Parent Trap” and “Father of the Bride.”
I remember when I was younger and didn’t like the way the movie ended, I would always rewrite it in my head.
My husband, Isaac Alongi, and I both come from small business backgrounds. Isaac owned a photography studio for many years and through that had a huge Christmas card business.
He had dreamed of making films since he was eight years old, but it wasn’t until he started participating in film projects with friends that I thought, “Well, what if we do our own project together?”
This is how I started making films. I evolved through it, and got the error.
He’s a cinematographer, I’m writing and directing, and we’re producing together. My first film was titled “Trust Fund” which was released in 2016.
It was too big for our first movie, and it was funded by investors and ourselves. That was fun, but a huge learning experience. At that point, I went to some classes and did a lot of reading, but I didn’t really understand what writing for a budget meant. I was writing a script based on what Isaac wanted to shoot, so I threw in private planes, trains, sports cars, and a trip to Italy.
Now, we mostly make movies for other people. She has directed 12 films so far and has made three Christmas films in the last two years. We’ve made movies for companies like Hallmark and Lifetime.
They’ll come to us with a script or a book and say, “Can you make this movie?” Then we have the freedom to position and cast. We film it, re-film them, and then distribute it in foreign territories and on TV networks like Lifetime or Hallmark.
Production will usually last about two to three weeks, but I will start writing months or years in advance. Before shooting, there is also pre-production, which will usually last about a month or two and includes all the casting and logistics.
I haven’t made a Christmas movie until 2020
When COVID-19 shut down everyone, all of our work was cancelled. Hallmark usually shoots their movies in the summer for submission this holiday season, but we’ve heard they won’t make movies because nobody can work.
My husband and I told ourselves that if there weren’t any Christmas movies out there, now would be a great time to make one. So we got busy.
I wrote a screenplay, and we made our first Christmas movie, “My Sweet Holiday,” in Kansas City in June of 2020. It was a learning curve. To stay in business during COVID, we’ve significantly reduced our crew size, ate out whenever possible, and had individual meals – no buffets. Of course, we used masks and lots of hand sanitizer too.
The City Film Commission even came to see how we were doing it.
It was a learning curve. It was 96 degrees on the first day of shooting, and we were putting people in woolen coats to try and keep them from sweating on screen.
We had reindeers and learned how to use a snow machine, but when you have a really loud machine in the background you have to go back and re-record the dialogue. You also have to be careful about what you show and what you don’t show. In summer, there are green flowers and trees, or people in shorts walking in the background.
I learned from that experience that you have to write about your sites and what you have available, as well as your budget.
That’s partly why we’ve decided to never shoot another Christmas movie in the middle of summer again.
We shot our latest movie, It’s Christmas Again, in January and March 2022
We shot the main part in the small town of Franklin, Tennessee, and were able to use decorations that the town put in, which saved us a lot of money. We didn’t have summer colors and our extras weren’t in shorts, but it came with challenges, too.
We were shooting in freezing weather, and a blizzard and ice storm came in on the first day of shooting. The movie is a musical, and we were on set to shoot in a beautiful old school setting.
When we arrived, it was covered in a thick layer of ice. There was no way our dancers could have danced safely there, but at the eleventh hour, we found a new location for 100 background dancers and actors.
Keeping Christmas movies fresh is quite a challenge
It’s easy to fall into a formula where someone moves from a big city to a small town. There’s clearly a market for that, but I’d love to try something a little different.
Anytime you tell a story, it’s about your character and trying to figure out who your characters are and what they’re going to do.
You put them in beautiful or funny situations – something where they have to figure out how to improve themselves or how to improve the world. Even if you’re dealing with some of the same stories, it’s all about the characters.
Christmas movies are now an industry, and a booming industry at the time. There’s such an appetite for them, but if you want to stream a Christmas movie to someone like Hallmark or Lifetime, they’re pretty strict on what they want to see. They are afraid that the public will not be interested in something new.
They found something that works really well, so they give it a go. It’s like a superhero movie – you pretty much know what you’re going to see when you get into it.
I always prefer to write movies that are uplifting, fun to watch, and always have a happy ending. No matter what kind of movie I’m making, that’s my trademark. It is a natural occasion for Christmas.
Families are always looking for things to do together, so I love giving them that.
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