London Film Festival Head Kristy Matheson On Her First Year In Post, Being “Blown Away” By Daniel Kaluuya’s Debut ‘The Kitchen’ & Navigating SAG-AFTRA Strike

London Film Festival Head Kristy Matheson On Her First Year In Post, Being “Blown Away” By Daniel Kaluuya’s Debut ‘The Kitchen’ & Navigating SAG-AFTRA Strike

“A lot of very impressive people have led this festival and what connects them is a love for movies and culture and what that can achieve,” Kristy Matheson told Deadline of her new job as Director of the British Film Institute’s London Film Festival.

“That has left a great stamp on this festival, and this is something I hope to continue.” 

Matheson has her first go at navigating that legacy next week as the London Film Festival (LFF) opens with the International Premiere of Emerald Fennell’s sophomore feature Saltburn, starring Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, and Rosamund Pike.

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Running October 4-15, LFF will feature 29 World Premieres, seven International Premieres, and 30 European Premieres. Eye-grabbing debuts set for London include Jeymes Samuel’s The Book of Clarence, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, LaKeith Stanfield, and David Oyelowo, and The Kitchen by Kibwe Tavares and Daniel Kaluuya, which closes the festival.

Other highly-anticipated titles arriving from the fall festivals include Priscilla by Sofia Coppola, Steve McQueen’s 4-hour experimental doc Occupied City, Ladj Ly’s latest Les Indésirables, Richard Linklater’s Hit Man, Yorgos Lanthimos’ Golden Lion winner Poor Things, and Bradley Cooper’s Maestro. Those titles will all screen at the Royal Festival Hall in the Southbank Centre as the festival returns to the London venue for its headline gala and special presentation screenings.

On the industry side, the festival has set a series of intriguing keynotes, including sitdowns with Jennifer Lee, chief creative officer of Disney Animation Studios, and Bill Kramer, CEO of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts (AMPAS), who will be in dialogue with BAFTA head Jane Millichip.

Matheson joined the BFI following Tricia Tuttle’s exit in 2022 after five years in post. Matheson’s potential hire attracted a lot of industry speculation during the BFI’s prolonged recruitment process thanks to what has generally been regarded as a highly successful stint as Creative Director of the Edinburgh Film Festival.

Below, the Aussie native talks to Deadline about how she landed in the UK, her experience in post at the BFI, and some of her 2023 LFF titles, including Jeymes Samuel’s The Book of Clarence, which debuts at the fest.

“It’s at a scale that’s inconceivable at times,” Matheson said of Samuel’s biblical comedy-drama.

Matheson also touches on how she and her programming team have navigated their work during SAG-AFTRA’s strike against the Hollywood studios.

DEADLINE: Kristy, you’re an Aussie? Where in Australia are you from?

KRISTY MATHESON: Yes! I’ve been living in Melbourne. It’s not my hometown, but I’ve lived there for a long time, so it feels like home. 

DEADLINE: What’s your story? How did you end up working in the UK? 

MATHESON: I was the Director of Film at the Australian Centre for The Moving Image, a purpose-built museum for film, television, games, and digital art. At the time, we had begun a huge renewal project, and by the time the museum opened, the Edinburgh Film Festival job had been advertised. I threw my hat in the ring for that, and then I moved over in 2021 to prepare for the ‘22 festival. LFF was the same. The job was advertised, so I threw my hat in the ring. I went through the interview process and it was quite straightforward in that way.

DEADLINE: What was attractive about the LFF job?

MATHESON: The festival has a huge reputation, and it falls at a pivotal moment in the film calendar for the UK. Also, since the festival is situated within the BFI, it offers the opportunity to bring a deeper context to the moving image. For example, with our Treasures festival strand, we can bring films back to life as we curate alongside colleagues in the BFI archive. To me, it’s very creatively rich to be able to work primarily with the festival team but also alongside other cinema-adjacent mediums.

DEADLINE: One thing that is unique to working at the BFI is the institute’s close working relationship with the British government. Parliament can be quite an unstable place. Your predecessor worked with many different culture ministers. How have you found navigating that relationship? 

MATHESON: In Australia, similar to the UK, most arts organizations have a level of government funding. Our colleagues in America have quite a different experience. But most people in the arts in the Anglosphere and across Europe have a connection to government. I believe the arts should be publicly funded, and in my 20 years, I’ve never been blocked by any government. The way these institutions are funded allows for some distance between you and a minister. But it’s just the nature of doing this work.

DEADLINE: Last year, I spoke with Ben Roberts (BFI CEO) about the new BFI strategy launch. I remember he mentioned the LFF had some funding gaps. Have these been resolved?

MATHESON: The vast majority of the festival’s money is self-generated, so close to 70% of our budget comes from general ticket sales and sponsorship. This year’s program has been on sale for ten days, and ticket sales are great. So it’s very encouraging that audiences are responding to the program, and that level of self-generated income feels very healthy at the moment.

DEADLINE: You have a fair few world premieres this year. One is Jeymes Samuel’s latest film. What can you tell me about it?

MATHESON: I cannot wait for people to see this film. I had the best time watching it. It’s fun, political, and very moving. The LFF opened with Jeymes’ previous film in 2021. People loved that screening. If you liked his last film, you’re going to be blown away by this film. It’s at a scale that’s inconceivable at times. He’s knocked it out of the park.

DEADLINE: Daniel Kaluuya’s directorial debut, The Kitchen, also debuts at LFF. Tell me about that film.

MATHESON: It’s such a London film from start to finish. At the heart of the film is an incredible, very emotional story about a community. Within that community, there’s a story about a father and son reconnecting. The performances are great, but then around that is a futuristic version of London. And it’s executed in a way you don’t expect outside of a big Hollywood film. People are going to be blown away by it.

DEADLINE: The official competition is very strong this year. Names like Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Kitty Green are screening. This hasn’t always been the case at the LFF. Is this the result of a concerted effort to change?

MATHESON: We’re strong across all three competitions. The Sutherland Competition (First Feature Competition) as well. We were seeing a lot of terrific first features from the UK, so the Sutherland came together first. And with the official competition, we thought long and hard about the texture of it and what we wanted it to say. It felt quite freeing, adding some nonfiction work into the mix. That allowed us to position work that we think of as more hybrid. For example, a film like Gasoline Rainbow is very much fiction, but the Ross brothers work in the space between documentary and fiction. 

DEADLINE: A big part of the LFF is the headline galas. How do you think these will be affected by the Hollywood strikes? There are a lot of studio films in the selection. 

MATHESON: When the strike was announced, we were very far down the road of programming. Obviously, it has major effects. But we tried to focus on the films. We looked at the movies we already had and felt incredibly confident that audiences would still be attracted to the selection despite any changes to how they are presented. We welcome any film teams that can attend. But we’re also not looking to push that. We understand that this is a very sensitive issue. But we still have a robust roster of guests joining us. Each year, 70% of our guests come from all over the world. So I think we’re gonna have very full carpets.

DEADLINE: The industry section at the LFF has gradually grown in prominence over the last few years. What’s your vision for the industry as you take on the mantle?

MATHESON: Our focus is on bringing the international marketplace into direct contact with the industry. We have several formal schemes like our works-in-progress program, but what’s great about LFF is that it’s also a very informal marketplace. There are a lot of great moments for informal networking. So, for us, it’s really about being the glue that connects industry and allows people to come here and do business in a slightly more relaxed environment.