Released on Nov. 25, Happiest Season earned the biggest audience for any Hulu original film in its opening weekend. According to Variety, it also attracted more new subscribers than any other movie, so a ton of people signed up for Hulu just to watch Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis struggle through an awkward family Christmas.
Of course, we always have to take this kind of “streaming record” news with a pinch of salt. Like Netflix‘s frequent announcements about some original TV show or movie being a huge hit, Hulu didn’t offer any actual numbers. We don’t know how many people watched Happiest Season, and streaming services have a notoriously flexible idea of what counts as a “view.” But the success of Happiest Season still feels meaningful.
Hulu hasn’t released as many original films as Amazon or Netflix. Most are documentaries, but there are also a few feature films with recognizable stars: Palm Springs (Andy Samberg), Vacation Friends (John Cena), Big Time Adolescence (Pet Davidson), Run (Sarah Paulson), and Boss Level (Frank Grillo and Mel Gibson). Happiest Season has an A-list star in the form of Stewart (with supporting performances from Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie, and Daniel Levy) and was originally planned for theatrical release. But it also emerges from a famously underserved genre. Hollywood rarely puts money behind fun, accessible queer movies like this: a Christmas rom-com that echoes familiar tropes while also telling an explicitly queer story, starring queer actors and directed by a lesbian filmmaker.
Happiest Season had a lot of traction on social media—partly thanks to the demand for feel-good queer movies, and partly because the film itself was so divisive. It earned positive reviews, but some viewers didn’t like Stewart’s love interest, Davis, and wanted her character to hook up with Plaza instead. Plus, Happiest Season is definitely edgier than the schmaltzy, made-for-TV Christmas rom-coms you find on the Hallmark Channel and Netflix. Some people weren’t expecting the film to include so much conflict, or they objected to its role as a coming-out story, a famously overused trope in mainstream queer pop culture.
Really, though, this controversy serves to highlight the fact that Happiest Season stands alone. It faced more scrutiny than, say, Netflix’s Christmas Prince franchise, because audiences don’t have a lot of queer rom-coms to choose from. It certainly held up to that scrutiny, which is why people were apparently signing up for Hulu to watch it in droves.