Children of the Golden Age turn to the silver screen

78-year-old great grandmother Val Sutherland with her daughter’s Cuban film posters. Photo by Edwina Williams.
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Older people account for a large proportion of cinema audiences. Edwina Williams reports.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon in suburban Sebastopol. Val Sutherland hops into her ‘soul red’ Mazda 3 and drives around to Redan to pick up her best friend, Jeanette Lockett. They drive into Ballarat together. Sutherland finds a parking spot out the front of The George hotel in Lydiard Street and the ladies wander down to the cinema. They pick up their tickets at the box office. Today they’re seeing My Cousin Rachel.

They have quite an overwhelming preference for the back row. They try to be first in line. Once the doors open, Lockett rushes into the theatre and saves Sutherland a seat. Sutherland goes into the café, buys them a toasted sandwich and a coffee each and takes their lunch into the movie. They always take a coffee in, it’s part of their ritual. For the next 90 minutes, Sutherland and Lockett enjoy the best part of their week.

Going to the movies is 78-year-old great grandmother, Val Sutherland’s great “passion”. Women over 50 comprise 34 per cent of movie goers per year in Australia, according to Screen Australia (SA).

“It’s a love of mine,” she says. “In my retirement, I have the luxury of being able to go more often.” The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports 66 per cent of people over 75 went to the cinema between 2013 and 2014.

“We have been known to see three movies in one day,” Sutherland says. “Some weeks there might be nothing on that we want to see, but another week there might be lots and we might go two days or see two movies in one day!”

According to SA, 61.1 per cent of over 50s have been to the cinema in the last six months and 32 per cent go yearly. On average, SA also reports over 50s go to the cinema seven times a year.

“When there’s movies on we like to see, we go as often as we need to accommodate them all,” she says. “I go mainly to enjoy what I go to see and along the way you get a bit of knowledge and education.”

According to The New York Times, in the last 20 years the number of people over the age of 50 going to the cinema has soared. It’s reported that 21 per cent of all tickets were bought by – or were for – moviegoers over the age of 50.

The New York Times also reports 44.9 million over-fifties went to the cinema twice or more in 2010, compared to 26.8 million in 1995.

Seven years on, could these statistics have climbed even further? If Sutherland is reflective of her demographic, the answer would well and truly be yes.

Chief executive of Everyman Cinemas, Andrew Myers, has told The Guardian, “undoubtedly the older audience recognises quality” and “They see through films that are not so well made.”

Sutherland has seen her fair share of well-made films and recognises the poorly made ones, too. However, she says she has never jumped ship mid voyage.

“We’ve never walked out of a movie, ever. We’ve rarely been even close to doing so. Mostly, we enjoy what we go to see,” she says.

The Guardian reports that from 2012 onwards, roughly a third of Hollywood productions are now being produced with an elderly target audience in mind. Sutherland looks beyond what’s pitched to just her own demographic.

“We like a wide variety of films. We think as moviegoers, you should take every opportunity to have a new experience and to either enjoy or maybe not enjoy whatever’s available.

“We can do romance, drama, war movies, adventure, pretty much anything else,” she says. “We don’t like science fiction, though. We like foreign films,” Sutherland says. Sixty three percent of art-house film buffs are 35 and older, according to Pearl and Dean.

“I was part of a film society… It was some old films, some foreign films, some off-beat different kinds of films. A wide variety.”

The last three films Sutherland has seen reflect this desire for variety. They include Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House, Roger Michell’s My Cousin Rachel and Jonathan Teplitzky’s Churchill.

Viceroy’s House is based on the true story of the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 whilst under the guidance of Viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten (played by Hugh Bonneville) and his wife, Lady Edwina (played by Gillian Anderson).

The Sydney Morning Herald’s reviewer, Paul Byrnes, gave the film three stars and labelled it “entertaining but [factually] misleading”. Sutherland agrees it was “enjoyable entertainment” and gives it three-and-a-half stars.

My Cousin Rachel is the second adaption of the 1951 novel by Daphne du Mauier. The story follows orphan Philip (played by Sam Claflin) and his deceased cousin’s widow, Rachel (played by Rachel Weisz). After his death, Rachel’s husband’s estate is left to Philip, and Rachel moves from Italy back to Cornwall to live at the estate. Philip is suspicious his cousin’s death was Rachel’s doing, and not because of poor health.

Stephen Romei from The Australian gave it three stars for – what he thought was – a “superb” performance from Weisz, of a “faithful” script with aspects of the “hallucinatory [and] near-supernatural” in line with the book. Sutherland says My Cousin Rachel was an “average period piece” and rates it two-and-a-half stars.

Churchill follows four days in the life of legendary British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (played by Brian Cox) in June 1944. As he plans Operation Overlord, he fears for the lives of tens of thousands and anticipates losing the Second World War.

News Corp’s national critic Leigh Paatsch gave the film two-and-a-half stars, calling it “tedious…wonky…uneven [and] clunky”. Sutherland disagrees, rating Churchill four stars for “great presentation and excellent acting”.

As always, Sutherland sat and consumed the three films at Ballarat’s only cinema, The Regent. “Our local theatre is…our very happy place,” she says. “Indeed I say I think I might have my funeral there and play a movie just one last time!”

“It’s a very traditional, lovely old theatre. It’s a multiplex. It’s been there all my living memory, probably before,” Sutherland says.

“I’ve always loved movies, from a young girl, and have always gone to the movies.”

Sutherland remembers the 1940s and 50s fondly. With her childhood friend of the same name, Val, she would go to a picture most Saturday afternoons. One of the first films she saw was The Yearling.

“It was about a little deer. I can’t remember how old I was, but that’s the one that comes to mind from my childhood,” she said. “The Yearling was very sad, I can remember crying. Another one was Bambi, that was another sad one and that was about a deer, too!”

The “Vals” loved Shirley Temple films and musicals. “All things light and pretty and fluffy,” Sutherland says.

Sutherland may have been a loyal customer of The Regent cinemas for most of her life, but she’s game to try somewhere new. Currently, a new multiplex is going up in Delacombe, south-west of Ballarat’s CBD.

“I’ll certainly be giving it a try,” she says. “It depends on whether they show a different type of movie, but I’ll always be faithful to The Regent.”

The era of The Regent’s monopoly in Ballarat might be about to end, but one thing is for sure, two regular customers are around for a while yet. Sutherland’s got a plan.

“Whoever hits the skids first, Jeannette and I have got a pledge that we will make sure the other one gets to the movies,” she says. “Even if I have to be led by the hand or wheeled in a wheelchair. I will always go to the movies!”