Little joy for ‘H is for Happiness’ opening weekend

‘H is for Happiness.’

John Sheedy’s debut feature H is for Happiness seemingly had a fair bit of momentum in the lead-up to the Australian release last weekend.

The comedy-drama with mystical elements adapted from Barry Jonsberg’s young adult novel My Life as an Alphabet won last year’s $100,000 CinefestOZ Film Prize, as well as second place in the audience awards at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

In its international premiere the film starring Richard Roxburgh, Emma Booth, Miriam Margolyes, Joel Jackson, Deborah Mailman and newcomers Daisy Axon and Wesley Patten will open the Berlin International Film Festival’s Generation KPlus section this month.

Pre-release, the film grossed $117,000 from advance screenings and the Perth Festival – so how to explain the modest opening weekend of $96,000 on 158 screens, distributed by R&R Films for Universal Pictures?

Julie Ryan, who produced with Tenille Kennedy and screenwriter Lisa Hoppe, tells IF:

“It has been great working with Universal and R&R who love the film as much as we do. But obviously we’re very disappointed with the weekend takings.

“We’ve screened the film enough times around Australia and to international programmers by now to know that there’s an audience for the film.

“Why hasn’t it reached our expectations this weekend is the million dollar question. Was it that we couldn’t get the film into cinemas during the school holidays because there were too many American films taking up screens? Do marketing budgets now have to match American films’ spends to really cut through to Australian audiences? Or has streaming finally hit the nail in the theatrical coffin?

“Whatever the answer, we do believe that we’ve made a classic Australian family film and that the film will find its audience, hopefully with the cinemas who will keep the film on their screens over the coming weeks, plus it should have a robust and long life on home entertainment, the education sector, streaming and broadcast.”

It’s an entertaining, well-made film but perhaps fell between the stools of being a children’s film and a family/adult title.

Perhaps another factor may be the film lacked a must-see cinematic quality. As Wallis Cinemas programming manager David Simpson put it: “It lacked the ambition to be more sentimental.”

Perth-based Axon, who made her debut in Judy & Punch, plays Candice Phee, a 12-year-old with boundless optimism and a unique view of the world, who is determined to bring her dysfunctional family back from the brink. Patten plays Douglas Benson, a character from another dimension, while Roxburgh and Booth play Candice’s parents with Jackson as her rich uncle Brian and Margolyes as Miss Bamford.

Screen Australia provided the major production investment. The co-investors are the Western Australia Regional Film Fund, Screenwest, the Melbourne International Film Festival Premiere Fund, Film Victoria, Soundfirm and Fulcrum Media Finance. The world sales agent is Tine Klint’s LevelK.