Kristy Matheson: Inspiring Curiosity

December 7, 2019
The Director of Film Programs discusses the significance of Melbourne’s iconic Centre of the Moving Image (ACMI).

As Director of Film Programs at Australia’s primary museum for the moving image, Kristy Matheson, has an important job deciding what we see on our screens.

As part of her role, Matheson oversees, views and co-ordinates a diverse range of forms and ideas including VR, long-form drama (Game of Thrones, Series Mania Melbourne Festival), short-film content, feature films (Japanese anime Studio Ghibli) and web-series.

At the moment, the Federation Square cultural centre, is getting a $40M facelift, which, according to Matheson, aims to solidify ACMI as our state-of-the-art community hub for the next 100 years.

We sought some predictions from ACMI’s Matheson about the future of content, connecting with audiences through offering engaging programs, and what ACMI can offer visitors in the next century.

 You’re Director of Film Programs at ACMI, which runs a broad spectrum of culture for audiences (film, TV, games, VR). What is the focus of the organisation?

In my role, I look after the film department at ACMI. We’re the national Museum of film, television, video games and digital culture. We’re really looking at that broad spectrum of forms. We don’t treat them in a hierarchical manner. For us, a film is just as valid as a TV show, web series or a video game. We’re not bound by form. The really big thing for us at ACMI is about inspiring curiosity. It’s a really great way of inviting the audience to take a chance on something they don’t know. We’re currently doing a $40 million museum renewal at the moment. A really big part of what we’re doing is thinking about the fact that yes, there are people that come and see us in physical reality. But there are lots of people who can’t come to us because they’re not in our physical building. So “what does it mean to go and see something in a museum or to see something in a cinema?” I’m working with my colleague Seb Chan (Chief Experience Officer at ACMI), who has developed this really wonderful notion of what it means to have a post visit experience. We’re looking at how to make connections between works that people come to see, and giving a rich context for what we do.

There was a really great quote Martin Scorsese said in an op ed piece for the New York Times the other day, where he talked about the fact that a lot of people say, “Oh, well, it’s just what the consumer wants”. It’s like, if you just keep feeding the consumer the same thing, then it’s not really a fair level playing field. So, for us, I think our mandate is to be really curious; to not just tell the same story that’s been told countless times. It’s about unearthing different film histories. Or asking you to watch a classic film, but curated in a way or given a context, that means you, as the viewer, are being asked to come to that work with a different lens. I think we’re about providing context in this sea of content. And, for me, personally, I’m very passionate about democratising culture. And I think that’s why I’m very proud to work there because I feel like all of the forms we celebrate are accessible to anyone. We all understand television we all understand films and video games. I feel like we do that in a way that invites you in. I would hate to think that we are there to provide culture as an exclusive thing. It has to be an inclusive thing. We’re there to really provide a town hall. That’s what we are really, a civic space. And I like the idea that people can commune and have a civic experience with the other people that happen to be there.

You bring diverse culture to ACMI such as Studio Ghibli and TV Festival Series Mania, to name a few. Can you tell us about ACMI’s emphasis on diverse cultures and bringing ideas to viewers?

Series Mania is a really great collaboration that we do with Series Mania France, which is an established TV festival there. It’s a cross organisational presentation. It’s a collaboration between ACMI and Film Victoria and Series Mania France. What’s really exciting about that for us is that when we think of films and film festivals we think of, Sydney and Melbourne and Cannes and Berlin. So, film has this critical stamp of approval. And of course, TV has that now, but I think the idea of a festival of TV is still a new concept.

People love watching TV in a cinema. Because it looks and sounds so great. Separate to Series Mania, we had this really wonderful opportunity just before we closed the building where we worked with Foxtel to play the first episode of Game Of Thrones in the cinema the same day it was broadcast nationally.

And it was a full house of 400 people in there, mad fans, and what was so great was that we spoke about why TV is important to us on a critical level, on a cultural level. And then as everyone settled into their chairs, the big HBO logo came on. And it was obviously the size of almost a 70 millimetre size screen and the whole audience giggled because it was like the cinema screen had turned into a giant TV. Being able to really flex Game of Thrones is a significant cultural moment. It’s a fan culture moment. Fan culture is really important. Equally, in Series Mania, we’re celebrating new Australian television, but it’s also celebrating really great international television that audiences haven’t seen yet. We’re saying to people – just come and take a chance on this. We’re going to show you two episodes. And it will spark your curiosity and then you can go and see it when it’s on TV later. It’s really about trying to provide something that people can engage with, but giving them that different experience, that context or that lovely communal experience, the surprise of something.

As the head of film at ACMI, what are your thoughts on Australian cinema at the moment, and the state of films around the world?

I think we punch way above our weight in Australia. If you look at who are the most famous actors in the world today, if you took the top 10 actors, a great majority of those are Australian. I think we have really fantastic talent in front of the camera. But we also have incredible depth of talent behind the camera. I think a lot of this has got to do with the fact that we value culture, and we’re supporting film culture in this country. And if you give creative people the space to make work, they make good work. I had the opportunity to see Justin Kurzel’s film The Story of the Kelly Gang at Toronto this year. I always feel really proud when I get to see an Australian film in a premiere in a context like that. I think seeing Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country when it premiered at Toronto in 2017 was really one of the most fabulous screening experiences I’ve had. When you sit in a room and watch a film like that, with an international audience, they are totally enthralled. They don’t just go, “Oh, this is just an Australian film”. They’re like, “this is a really great movie”. I think that we have to just accept that we make really good films. Look at those stats. They’re world beating. Two Australian films in competition two years in a row at Venice. That’s very impressive, really impressive. And I think that any national cinema would be very happy to put that on the books.

ACMI is Australia’s leading museum for the moving image. What is the centre’s role in the future as it becomes harder to compete for audience time with more platforms and content popping up than ever before?

In terms of our exhibition size, we’re the most visited Museum of our type in the world. With over 1.5 million visitors. We’re very, very lucky, and to have the support of the Victorian Government to undertake this $40 million renewal which we’re doing now. This is about renewing our offer, rethinking what a museum of our type is going to be for the rest of the century, but also, it’s about building capacity to welcome in bigger audiences and to offer new things to those audiences. We do a lot of work in inviting different communities, we have a lot of film festivals that we house throughout the year. The building has to serve a lot of different people. And, for us, that’s really the core mission of what we do. We’re there to serve a very broad public and there aren’t many moving image museums in the world.

It’s challenging because we’re essentially competing in a leisure market and people are very time poor and have lots of choice. We are vying for your leisure time. So, in the business that we’re in, we have to make sure that for one, we make it worth your time to leave the house. We don’t make it inaccessible, either the environment or the price or what we’re showing; so that you will want to turn up and you’ll come with your curiosity.

And we have to accept that our offer has to be outstanding, because I’m asking you to give up time, hanging out with your friend at their birthday party, coming to a museum. I’m in the luxury market. But I do think that as people individualise their consumption more, people want communal experiences and they want experiences that are not narrow casting. We’re personalising everything. And I think that the great value of museums like ours is that we are going to give you information. And we are going to tailor it to a certain degree, but we’re going to ask you to enter into a social contract and it’s not going to be narrowcast. And that’s appealing to people as they don’t want to feel isolated. I think we’re social animals. If you look at the stats, there’s a recent report that’s been released, 84.7% of Australians engaged in cultural activity last year. That’s really high. 4% of our household income is spent on cultural attractions and consumption. People like doing this. And it’s really on us to make sure the offer is smart. And it’s generous. And it’s curious. It has to be good. So that’s the bit we have to do.

Head over to the ACMI website to find out more.

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