London Film Festival Director Kristy Matheson on ‘Saltburn,’ ‘Chicken Run 2’ and Mission to ‘Elevate U.K. Work to the Rest of the World’

Kristy Matheson had big shoes to fill when she took over from Tricia Tuttle as director of the BFI London Film Festival (LFF) earlier this year.

Over the course of a decade, Tuttle transformed LFF into a highlight of the fall festival calendar, drawing some of the biggest names in entertainment to the English capital each October including, memorably, Ted Sarandos and Beyoncé, who flew in to celebrate the world premiere of “The Harder They Fall” in 2021.

Still, LFF, which has no film market component, continues to find itself overshadowed by competitors including Cannes, Venice and TIFF, particularly when it comes to nabbing those coveted world premieres.

Matheson, who moved over from the Edinburgh International Film Festival, where she was creative director, isn’t disheartened, instead focusing on LFF’s strengths, which she identifies as audience-friendly screenings, industry forum and its prime position in the awards season calendar.

Ahead of LFF’s launch on Oct. 4, Matheson sat down with Variety to talk all things film and festivals.

What has it been like moving over from Edinburgh to LFF?

Coming into this role was great. I’d already started watching a lot of films so I felt like I’d started the year seeing a lot of great work, and then we have an incredible team that’s already in place. Tricia Tuttle had done such an incredible job building this festival team, it’s really been so great because it’s meant that myself and the programming team have really been able to concentrate on crafting what’s in the program. We’ve just been able to think about the films and what’s the story that we’re going to tell this year to audiences here in the U.K. through the films that we’ve been watching.

How have the strikes impacted programming this year?

We were very, very deep into the programming process when the [SAG] strike was confirmed. As a team, we just really tried to keep our heads down in the work and not get too distracted by things that we can’t control. We understand that there are certain people that are not going to be able to be with us this year. And, you know, that happens every year for a multitude of reasons. Obviously, we do hope that both parties in this situation can find a quick resolution.

How do you view LFF’s position in the festival calendar?

LFF is very uniquely placed to do two things: we obviously are an audience-facing festival [and] we’re positioned so that we can elevate U.K. work to the rest of the world. That’s something we take very seriously and are really thinking about when we’re crafting the program. Being in this awards corridor, we have access to some very exciting new films that people will be talking about for the rest of the year and early into 2024. So it’s really about trying to leverage, I think, the position that we have in the calendar in order to amplify films because they’re sitting in the orbit of those other titles [from very established directors].

Is it a challenge competing with festivals like Cannes and Venice?

I think what people really appreciate about LFF is that you get to play [your film] with an actual audience; an audience of people who are choosing to spend their money and go and see this particular film. For various film suppliers we work with, it’s actually really attractive for them to be able to bring their film, put it in front of a real paying audience and get a feel for “OK, how might we think about the campaign? How might we roll this film out?” [The U.K.] is such a big market that it is an important stop for a film. Obviously there are certain festivals where they’re really there to launch a film, but really more for the industry so that people will buy the film and pick it up. We have really got our eye focused on connecting audiences to films.

There’s been a lot of excitement about the “Chicken Run” sequel, “Dawn of the Nugget,” which will have its world premiere at LFF. Animation doesn’t always get the respect it deserves, especially at festivals. What was the thinking behind including it in the program?

Aardman Studio is one of the great U.K. film industry success stories and for good reason. Obviously the actual technical aspects of the film – they’re peerless. It’s very magical. It’s very fun. It’s got some adventure in it, it’s got a few thrills and spills, but it’s really a film about how we need each other to reach a goal, get through the day. It’s a film about community, about the idea of family in its broadest sense. It’s a very universal story. But it’s also just nice to see films that are so joyous. There’s a lot of films in the program this year that might be dealing with big issues but they’re very joyful in the way that they’re interpreting that.

And then a very different film – “Saltburn” – will open the festival.

I had a great time watching it. It’s very spiky and playful. It’s beautifully made, it’s got these really knock-out performances. But it’s just a film of many different layers. I think that depending on where you’re coming at this film from, you will take something away from it. It’s a very devilish examination of the British class system. There’s a really great crescendo to this film, which obviously I don’t want to plot-spoil. But as soon as it happened, I just thought, “I want this as my opening night.” I could just imagine people spilling out into the night and it being something that people would really, really talk about.

When programming LFF, especially compared to say Edinburgh, how do you find balancing the Hollywood offerings with homegrown projects?

Primarily, we are programming for the city that that we are in and London is a truly global city. Every year, we start the year fresh and we’re watching everything we can and then over time a pattern emerges. We don’t set out and say, “OK, we are going to have this many films from this part of the world,” but we definitely know that we want the program to reflect the population that we’re working with.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

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