Hallmark and the Small Business

Running a bit behind here.  It’s been a busy couple of weeks.  But at least I’m getting this out in time for Christmas . . .

Countless Christmases

Countdown to Christmas logoI believe this is my fourth year of following the Hallmark channels’ gallery of Christmas romance movies (“Countdown to Christmas”).  Not that it’s humanly possible to see them all.  I believe Hallmark is introducing twenty-three new films this year; and that doesn’t take into account the similar plenitude of programs from the nine previous years of “Countdown.”  In this torrent of trysts, it would be easy for the more traditional fare to get lost entirely, from White Christmas to Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (the truly canonical video version of that story, I’m convinced).

And Hallmark is only the bellwether of an entire subgenre.  Netflix has its own array of seasonal video, so similar to the Hallmarks that you’d mistake one for the other if the branding were absent.  Subscribe to Amazon Prime instead of Netflix?  You can still find plenty of holiday fare, whether traditional flicks or newer Amazon productions.

The trend may be reaching some kind of limit.  The plots are starting to recur faster and faster.  Of course, that repetition makes these movies ripe for satire.  My children pointed me to a Christmas movie script allegedly written by a computer (“Someone Made a Bot Watch 1,000 Hours of Hallmark Christmas Movies and Write a Script”; here’s the original tweet from Keaton Patti).  I doubt this was really a bot at work; it’s too funny.

In any case, it turns out these plot generators are spawning as fast as the movies themselves.  For example, just at the top of my search results I found samples from WrongHands, E! Online, and The Odyssey Online.  Lots of articles remark on the phenomenon.  For example, here’s NPR’s snark-fest on the 2019 Christmas romance crop, Hallmark and otherwise.

Among other things, this mass of Christmas cheer does make the field a useful laboratory for looking at some tropes and storytelling points.  One could probably do a statistically valid survey with this large a universe of data.  Here, I’m just going to focus on one favorite trope:  the small business (or, as NPR labels it, the “adorable small business”).

Small Businesses Are Adorable

The Christmas Ornament coverSmall businesses, especially family businesses, frequently play a role in genre romance movies.  For example, in A Christmas Melody (2015), the heroine has just lost her clothing boutique and spends time in a cozy local coffee shop.  We also go from one small business to another in The Christmas Ornament (2013), where the heroine has been trying to keep her late husband’s bike shop open, but discovers her real passion is baking cookies (courtesy of a new romantic interest who has a Christmas tree shop).  The female lead in The Christmas Secret  (2014) has just been fired from her job, but gets a new one in a local bakery.  (There are a lot of bakers in these tales.  Christmas is cookie season.)

Sometimes the issue is the temptation to “sell out.”  For example, in Let It Snow (2013), the female lead is an executive assigned to overhaul a newly acquired family business, Snow Valley Lodge, into a modernized hipster paradise.  She sees the error of her ways, of course.

The trope isn’t confined to Christmas, or to Hallmark.  For instance, Coffee Shop (2014) gives us a shop that’s an important gathering place in the community, but financially troubled; her former boyfriend wants to bail her out by selling the property to a mall developer.

The sellout motif reaches a sort of reductio ad absurdum in this year’s Hallmark feature Merry and Bright.  Our heroine Cate is doing a good job of running her grandmother’s candy cane company, but candy canes aren’t as big a deal as they used to be.  The romantic interest, a “corporate recovery consultant,” proposes gaining a venture capitalist’s support by expanding the business into other Christmasy candy—chocolates and such.  That’s such a logical idea that it seemed this story would avoid the trope.  But no:  as she’s poised to sign the contract, Cate stops and declares that her grandmother founded a candy cane business, nothing else, and Cate’s determined to stick with it.

I sat there open-mouthed (since I had no chocolates to eat, alas) at the notion that manufacturing candy canes was virtuous, but expanding into chocolates was some kind of betrayal.  The resolution, in which Cate succeeds by interesting an investor in candy canes with new and innovative flavors, failed to convince me that her scruples made any kind of sense.

A Houston Press article from last year snarks up the trope:  “Oh, and every little book store or bakery or community theater can be turned into a resounding success with a little love.”

Variations

On the other hand, we do see some aversions of the trope.  A couple of examples from this year’s batch:

In Picture a Perfect Christmas, our heroine is a photographer who travels all around the world for her work.  She arrives in a small town for the holidays to look after her aging grandmother, and falls for a local guy.  But it’s kind of a relief to find that neither of them has to give up their careers, or found a small business.  It appears she can go right on globe-trotting and picture-taking; she’s just going to come home periodically to a new base of operations.  In fact, the guy and his semi-adopted nephew are going to join her on her next shoot, in Switzerland, a very sensible plan.  It’s kind of refreshing.

Tree bagging from Christmas Under the Stars

Christmas Under the Stars

The male main character in Christmas Under the Stars is fired abruptly (at Christmas!) from his soulless investment banking job, and ends up working in a little local Christmas tree lot that’s going to be razed for development.  He and the female main character save the lot from the bulldozer, as well as solving everyone’s other problems.  But the hero doesn’t become a career Christmas tree salesman; he goes back into finance—only this time it’s in a non-soulless company that specializes in ethical investing.  So an endearing and Christmasy local business is involved, but it isn’t the ultimate destination of either of the main characters.

The Purpose of a Business

What is it that these cute home-town businesses are supposed to have that makes them so adorable?

We have a widespread sense that a small operation is more likely to have integrity than a larger enterprise:  less likely to sell out, more dedicated to its original mission.  We tend to feel that a small business will have less discontinuity between its ostensible purposes—making coffee, selling books, offering Christmas trees—and the way it treats people in practice, along with the necessary purpose of making money.

The Incredibles (2004) shows a comically exaggerated version of this divide.  Bob Parr works for an insurance company, which is theoretically established to help its customers in times of difficulty.  Instead, the institution is so dedicated to denying customer claims that Bob practically has to use guerilla tactics to get a claim honored.  For someone with the heart of a superhero—a “helping profession” if there ever was one—this stultifying job is a pecular kind of hell.

To be sure, a business aims to make money, or it won’t last long.  But those who begin it, or join it, generally do so because they aspire to make an excellent product, or provide a useful service.  Not many lines of business are pure scams.  The trouble is that as the operation gets bigger and older, it seems often to develop a single-minded devotion to making more and more money, even at the expense of the excellence of the product or service.  A small enterprise, by contrast, where the owner may come into daily contact with the persons being served, is less likely to be seduced by that particular temptation.  It’s easier to keep focus on a product that pleases and benefits people—like cookies.

It's A Wonderful Life housewarming sceneAn older Christmas movie, It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), lives on that contrast.  The quirky and adorable Bailey Building and Loan helps people acquire their own homes, though it’s not as profitable as Mr. Potter’s cruel cost-cutting firm.

This idealization of small firms is easy for the cynic to sneer at.  Big business is the way of the world, sloppy sentiment aside.  But storytellers are tapping into a genuine issue here.

The Stumbling-Blocks of Largeness

We’re generally told that bigness allows for economies of scale that reduce prices and improve services.  To take an example at random, this article by Ken Doctor (12/6/19) states as obvious (even in a critique of mergers) that “McDonald’s can make burgers a lot more efficiently than mom-and-pop joints in every town can.”  But this truism needs closer examination.

First, not enough attention is paid to diseconomies of scale.  For example, mergers can result in ill-assorted pieces that don’t really work together, offsetting gains that might be achieved by volume discounts.  I’m acquainted with one large company, for example, that is still producing separate reports and maintaining separate books for a subsidiary it absorbed at least ten years ago.

A more direct issue with largeness is that as an organization grows, it seem to require more and more generalized policies and inflexible rules.  A firm of twenty-five people can make room for individualized exceptions; an organization of ten thousand, not so much.  The principle seems to hold true in any kind or organization, whether it’s a private business, a nonprofit, a government, or even a church.  Universal rules aren’t all bad; they can be a necessary bulwark against personal discrimination.  But as the system grows, we have more and more the sense of dealing with mindless machinery, rather than on a person-to-person basis.

Google Dragonfly graphicIt seems a company often starts with enthusiasm about a cool product; but as it grows, the bean-counters take over, and that original spark recedes in favor of merely finding ways to pump up the quarterly reports.  Google, for example, may (sadly) be in the process of making this transition.  The company started out with the innocent motto “Don’t be evil”; it’s now  in trouble for helping China with its totalitarian surveillance state via “Project Dragonfly” (though it seems to have backed away from that project as of July).  It may be significant that Google’s founders have just departed—perhaps signaling the end of that original enthusiasm for making things better.

Mergers and Their Discontents

In addition, as a business gets bigger, it tends to crowd out competitors; and an exclusive concentration on increased profits without a corresponding attention to fairness and decency gives rise to a deliberate drive for monopoly, or oligopoly (market power exercised by a few firms rather than only one).

As fewer and larger firms amass market power, the lack of competition results in higher prices, as well as worse customer service.  If the combination actually reduces costs, none of the benefits actually flow through to the customer.  In my field (telecommunications), I can think of no examples where a merger actually resulted in lower prices for consumers.  And it’s hard to think of any where customer service improved as a result; normally, customer service gets worse.  For an example from another field, the airlines, consider this aggrieved customer’s horror story.

A less obvious disadvantage is that mergers can result in a loss of institutional memory.  A merger frequently seeks to cut costs by dropping redundant staff.  Aside from the minor difficulty of people’s losing their jobs (which seems a common anxiety at Christmastime, right back to Scrooge’s threat to Cratchit about “losing your situation”), this means the people who knew the history may be gone.  More than once I’ve run into a company that can’t find records of what its own pre-merger components did in the past.

You might say that the legal version of the Hallmark preference for smallness is antitrust law, which is designed to keep large entities from abusing their market power in some of the ways mentioned above.  Some contemporary examples of how the antitrust laws are not currently being enforced can be found in a recent article (12/19/19) by Steven Pearlstein.

Bigness is not necessarily bad.  But problems such as these are the characteristic flaws of the large organization, against which one must constantly be on guard.  In the way that a particular profession may have its “occupational hazards”—say, the temptation of lawyers to fall into a barren legalism—an entity may, simply by its scale, be vulnerable to typical failure modes.  The sentimental attachment to small entities is not simply nostalgia; there’s something to it.

The Appeal of the Small Business

We know some of the disadvantages of the small business:  for instance, the local shops in the Hallmark romances are frequently on the verge of failing—reflecting, along with the narrative demand of drama, their more limited resources and hence vulnerability to problems, such as a business downturn.  But what are the advantages such stories play on?

The Christmas List posterFamiliarity.  The direct contact between businesspeople and customers allows for personal relationships.  We see it with George Bailey, making kind-hearted adjustments in payment schedules to help individual customers (a practice for which the hard-charging Potter rakes him over the coals).  An older Christmas romance, The Christmas List (1997), apparently not from Hallmark but fitting the mold, features a perfume saleswoman who know how to figure out the perfect scent for a customer—an unusual sort of personal connection, but a helpful one for the buyer.  If I recall correctly, the proprietor in Coffee Shop had a similar talent for determining the perfect drink for someone.  You can’t give that kind of personal attention when you’re a faceless cog in a call center working from a fixed script.

To be sure, it’s possible to have this sort of personal relationship in a large organization.  A number of the pharmacists at my local CVS, where I show up every couple of weeks for prescriptions, actually know my name.  But on the whole, the further away management is from the actual customers, the easier it is for them to regard customers solely in terms of ARPU—“average revenue per unit.”

Community.  Thus, there’s a certain warmth and welcome—classic Christmas themes—to the bar “where everybody knows your name.”  The local shop can actually engender a close-knit community (the current term seems to be “found family”) capable of mutual support and reassurance.  That was a theme in Coffee Shop; it was also at work in another recent non-Christmas romantic comedy, The Bookish Life of Nina Hill (Abbi Waxman, 2019).

Tales of the Long Bow coverConcreteness.  While the intellect has its joys, there’s a particular satisfaction in making something with our hands:  a tangible product whose excellence can seen and felt by anyone.  The types of small businesses featured in the Christmas romances—bakeries, bookshops, farms—do this a lot.  By contrast, a large business often seems to end up dealing in abstractions.  Chapter Five of G.K. Chesterton’s Tales of the Long Bow (1924) contrasts the small farmer who actually raises pigs with the wheeler-dealer who merely trades in them.  You can read the passage here, though you really need the whole book to fully appreciate the force of Chesterton’s point.

One of the key developments in Pretty Woman (1990) is Edward’s transformation from a soulless transactional businessman to someone who can put his assets and expertise behind what is, in effect, a family business.  Initially, his method is to swoop in, acquire a company, split it up and sell off the pieces at a profit—like a stolen car at a “chop shop,” as Vivian pungently observes (see under “Not So Different” at the TV Tropes entry).  But he gets to know the father-and-son owners of the current target and their pride in building ships for the Navy.  And as Vivian softens his heart, Edward changes his mind:  he’s going to support them in building ships for a good cause.  He’s going to make something, not just move money around.

Putting ourselves into our work.  Along with the pride in building something concrete goes the sense that we’re contributing to the good in the world.  The work both expresses oneself and leaves something tangible behind.  Small-town construction company owner Jamie Houghton, in Christmas List (Hallmark 2016, not to be confused with “The Christmas List” above), at 1:47, speaks of “…creating something that means something to you—leaving a bit of yourself in the world.”  The satisfaction of this kind of work is something the Hallmarks are trying to bring back to our attention.  You can put yourself into work for a large organization, too, if the organization allows that much individuality; but it’s harder, for the reasons noted above.

These virtues are so out of fashion that they have an antique feel to us today.  That in itself makes them especially useful for a Christmas story.  As Hallmark incessantly tells us, Christmas looks backward—to traditions, to memories, to childhood.  Ultimately, of course, it looks back two thousand years to the original Christmas.

Small Businesses Help the Plot Thicken

Because of the features we’ve discussed above, the heroine’s bakery or bookshop can serve as a linchpin for the plot.  A financial crisis or other threat to the business, or a decision about how what road it’ll take in the future, gives the characters something to be concerned about.  How each person responds shows their real character.  The heroine’s unsatisfactory current or ex-boyfriend, for example, shows his true colors by endorsing the sellout   He has completely failed to understand the heroine, and thus disqualified himself.  Or the true romantic interest may take off in a similar big-business direction, leading to tension or a temporary rupture between the main characters; but he can change his mind and thus prove he’s really on her wavelength after all.

You've Got Mail, bookshop scene

You’ve Got Mail

There’s an interesting semi-aversion (outside the Hallmark orbit) in You’ve Got Mail (1998).  It’s Tom Hanks’ large bookstore that threatens Meg Ryan’s lovable community bookshop, “The Shop Around the Corner.”  In the end she loses the bookshop; the economic forces at hand are too great.  But as she wanders through Hanks’ larger establishment, she seems to come to terms with it, in a way.  The big-box store can also be a place where children encounter beloved books and people can congregate.  Maybe if the story had taken place at Christmastime, the ending would have been different . . .

Smallness and Christmas

It’s not exactly a new departure, even in economic circles, to observe that “small is beautiful.”  And, as we’ve seen, there are some significant reasons to value smallness and be careful about unlimited growth, even in economic circles.  But it makes sense that this motif keeps turning up in stories that appeal to our homelier sentiments too.

It’s also fitting that the trope comes up so frequently in Christmas stories.  Christmas, in itself, represents the triumph of the small over the large.  One poor couple, without even a home or an inn to have their baby, are ranged against Herod and all his soldiers, and behind them, the Roman Empire.  Yet the child has outlasted them all.  In the Christmas story we see the divine and universal focused down to an intensely personal scene.  Every other small personal triumph can find a home there—even a romance.

At Christmastime, prizing the small may be a cliché – but it’s no accident.

An Incredible Sequel

The Incredibles 2 movie posterSome quick, spoiler-free comments on The Incredibles 2, which I had a chance to see this weekend.

The First Incredibles

The original Pixar film The Incredibles (2004) is a great favorite of mine.  My fondness for superhero stories goes way back, and The Incredibles does an irresistible job of both exemplifying and spoofing the genre.  Moreover, it’s a character-driven story, little as one might expect that from a superhero flick.  It’s got a gallery of memorable characters—not just the family, but distinctive supporting cast members like Frozone and Edna.  And they change over the course of the tale in ways that are plausible, illuminating, and heartwarming.

The Incredibles is genre-savvy enough to be both worldly-wise and innocent.  It starts with a premise that borders on the cynical:  these costumed brawlers cause so much damage that a public outcry forces them to go underground and live normal lives, in a sort of witness protection program.  There’s a note of realism there that contrasts with the usual comic-book conventions.  We see it again when the business of creating the colorful costumes itself turns out to require expertise worthy of James Bond’s Q—giving us Edna Mode as an independent contractor (and style maven).

This issue of collateral damage seems to have preoccupied superhero movies a lot in recent years.  It’s a primary plot driver in both Captain America:  Civil War (2016) and Batman v. Superman (2016).  But The Incredibles was there first, twelve years earlier.  What that says about contemporary attitudes is something at which we may want to take a closer look, another time.

The New Incredibles

Incredibles 2, family in force fieldThe first question that arose when a sequel was announced was, where do they go from here?  Of course, superheroes are almost by definition open to continuing adventures.  And The Incredibles ended with an obvious starting point for another story:  the appearance of a new villain, the Underminer.  But at the end of the first movie, the character arcs, the development of the main characters, had all been neatly completed.  Could the director and screenwriters come up with something equally good from that starting point?

The answer was always:  if anyone could pull that off, it’d be Pixar.

I enjoyed The Incredibles 2 immensely.  I’ll have to let it settle for a while to evaluate how it stands with respect to its classic predecessor.  But the movie is a lot of fun, and it manages to carry forward a story that’s consistent with the first movie, yet departs from it enough to avoid simply repeating the original.  As we’ve seen, this a tricky business.

Despite the fourteen-year gap in realtime between the first and the second movie, the latter picks up exactly where the former leaves off, with the appearance of the Underminer.  This tunnel-drilling villain is an obvious shout-out to Marvel’s Mole Man, who was introduced in the very first issue of The Fantastic Four.

Since the Incredibles have always been a kind of retake of the F.F., the Mole Man connection has a pleasing nostalgia aspect for the long-time comic-book fan.  There’s a similar homage to the F.F. in Kurt Busiek’s Astro City comics—a superhero group called the “First Family.”  (Their last name is actually “Furst,” making them another instance of the proverb that the last shall be Furst, and the Furst shall be last.)  Busiek, incidentally, may have been the first graphic novelist to highlight the collateral damage question; the matter of “everyday life in a superhero universe” is treated not only in Astro City (which started in 1995), but also in his revisiting of the Marvel universe, the limited series Marvels (1994).

Time and Tide

The time lapse (realtime) between Incredibles 1 and 2 is less disruptive than one might imagine, because both movies are set in an alternate past, not in our present.  One article concludes that the main action of The Incredibles takes place in 1962, based on a newspaper date.  This fits with the fact that Brad Bird’s inspiration for the film came from the comic books of the 1960s.  The time period is visible in the charmingly retro designs of the homes and cars in the original movie, not to mention the big rocket used by the villain.

So we’re not disturbed by the fact that the characters in The Incredibles (1 or 2) don’t carry around cell phones or use personal computers.  There are, of course, computers and other high-tech devices in both movies.  But this is consistent with the standard comic-book depiction of advanced technology in the hands of certain individuals or groups, as opposed to the society as a whole.  (This convention also applied in other adventure stories, like the Saturday morning cartoon Jonny Quest, one of my childhood favorites, which makes a brief appearance onscreen in The Incredibles 2.)  We might see high-powered computers and such in the Batcave, or a villain’s lair—or even in some hidden country, like Marvel’s Wakanda (which first appeared in 1966).  But these were always “islands” of high technology, having no effect on the technological level of the overall culture.

Mr Incredible with Mirage's tablet messageThere is a subtle difference between the 1960s depictions of advanced technology and what we see in the Incredibles movies, which may throw us off a bit.  A 1960s-era imaginary supercomputer looked like an extrapolated version of 1960s-era mainframe computers.  One thinks of old James Bond movies showing computers ornamented with slowly rotating tape drives, which now look ludicrously anachronistic.  But this nostalgic re-creation of 1960s-era high-tech has the advantage of knowing how the future actually turned out.  Thus, in an early scene from the first movie, Mr. Incredible is tracking a car chase in his Incredimobile—and the electronic tracker looks not unlike a GPS, albeit one with primitive graphics.  When Mirage sends a “This message will self-destruct” recording to Bob, it’s on a tablet strangely reminiscent of a modern iPad.  In effect, the movie designers are reimagining the imagined future of the 1960s, by reference to the actual future (our present).  The mind boggles a bit.

All in all, The Incredibles 2 does a very good job of resuming the story fourteen years later with a minimum of retcon.  Compare Back to the Future II, which required a distinct revision of the closing scene from the first movie, only four years after episode 1 was released.

Managing the Handoff

There were a couple of things I didn’t quite expect in the transition from the end of episode 1 to the beginning of episode 2.  But they weren’t really retcons—more like things I’d assumed at the end of The Incredibles that turned out not to be quite so simple.  These aren’t really spoilers, since they become apparent almost at once in the new movie.

Incredibles 2, family chargingThe Parr family and Frozone are publicly acclaimed for defeating Syndrome in episode 1, but that doesn’t mean they’re out of the woods yet.  The anti-supers law still hasn’t been reversed.  When the story was wrapped up in a single movie, we would reasonably assume that such things would automatically be resolved after the movie ended, just as we assume that the main characters’ romance will proceed swimmingly when a movie fades out on a kiss.  But there’s still work to be done on society’s acceptance of supers in The Incredibles 2.

Then there’s baby Jack.  We saw Jack exhibit a variety of assorted superpowers in the first movie and the associated short subject (“Jack-Jack Attack”).  But his family didn’t quite see that; they don’t yet know he has superpowers.  Of course, as the trailers make clear, they find out pretty soon . . .

Conclusion

I heartily recommend the sequel; most fans of The Incredibles should enjoy this follow-up.

And one bit of practical advice for the moviegoer:  the closing credit graphics are entertaining, but there’s no need to wait around for the very end.  Our 1960s-ish superhero family has not yet adopted the modern practice of putting a “stinger” scene at the conclusion of the credits.