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Paige Williams is known for making films. Good ones, which have won several notable awards and appeared in more than 400 venues around the world. Her debut documentary, Mississippi Queen, has been distributed on television in six countries and premiered at fifty film festivals. Williams, a UM adjunct professor for six years, made the Missoulian’s first “20 under 40” list in 2013. Her office at the UM-managed Montana Technology Enterprise Center [MonTEC] is filled with computer monitors, film posters, and a whiteboard full of brainstorms. A little more than a year ago, Williams took her passion for independent films and launched a new business called the Audience Awards.
How did you get the idea for your startup company, the Audience Awards?
I was working to find content for Montana Film Commissioner Deny Staggs, who wanted to start a Montana-centric YouTube channel. When I submitted to film festivals, I always loved winning the audience awards. It gave me the idea to let viewers be the judge and host short-film competitions to source content for Montana’s site. But I was interested in online short-film competitions on a broader scale, since there’s so much segregated content that’s never seen. I wanted to provide an avenue for filmmakers to raise money and get exposure for their art through business-sponsored, user-generated content competitions. So in June of 2013, I created the Audience Awards website and made The Making of the Audience Awards videos for Montana’s YouTube channel.
In a nutshell, what does the Audience Awards do?
It’s a digital platform that connects audiences to independent filmmakers. We host a variety of timed, themed competitions where the short film [fifteen minutes and under] with the most votes wins a prize. It puts film entertainment into the hands of the audience, since the content is curated by and for the viewers.
What are your long-term goals for the Audience Awards? I want to be the one-stop shop where independent filmmakers can do everything to create, market, finance, and distribute their films. I want audiences around the world to get to see films they’d never otherwise see, comment on them, share them, root for them, and engage with them in a way that matters.
Do you still make films?
Yes, definitely. My last project was a pilot for a PBS series called Art Montana, which featured four artists from across the state. The film is also used in classrooms as part of curriculum that fulfills core standards. For instance, we developed a math lesson to go along with a snippet of film on George Gogas that teaches geometry through art.
What’s your next project?
Actually, PBS gave the green light to turn Art Montana into a regular series. We will use the Audience Awards to run a competition for Montana filmmakers to feature a Native American artist. The top four films that win the most votes will get a cash prize, and then be edited into the next Art Montana episode and posted on Montana’s YouTube channel. We’ll also offer $100 to the first ten filmmakers who sign up this fall to help with their production costs.
Tell us what you’ve learned while starting your own business.
I’ve learned that business is all about building relationships and utilizing connections. And that consistently showing up and getting the work done builds trust in those relationships. I always ask how I can help someone, not just whether they can help me. I knock on a lot of doors, but I only knock once—I’ve learned that over time. The ones that open are the paths I‘m supposed to go down.
How has MonTEC supported your startup?
My rent was scaled quarterly, which helped as I grew revenue. Besides financial value, I’ve tied into people I wouldn’t have known otherwise who want my business to succeed. I was able to sit in on a roundtable with Obama’s Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, and invited to present to Senator Tester’s economic development team. I also recently presented to Montana’s Board of Regents about the value of MonTEC.
What’s your main advice for up-and-coming entrepreneurs in Montana?
Building the right team is essential, but it takes time and energy. Measure results to figure out how to get better ones. Ask why when someone says no. And, most importantly, make sure that you’re in love with what you’re doing because you have to do it every day, a lot of hours a day, and talk and think about it incessantly.
What do you love about connecting films to audiences?
Giving filmmakers the chance to have their work seen. It’s important to me. The best thing I’ve heard since the launch of this site is feedback from participating filmmakers that the exposure was extremely valuable, and something they would get nowhere else. I want to make that happen for more filmmakers, even if it’s one person at a time. I also love when an audience member gets to discover a film they would never have seen otherwise—a film that lasted five minutes that changed their perspective—that’s priceless.
How do you balance family, work, and play?
I found that putting my children first created the balance I needed in my work life. I volunteer in their classrooms and work from home on Fridays to be with them. My workload has gotten easier over the last year as I hire people to take on responsibilities and learn how to work even more efficiently.
What do you do in your free time?
Play with my family—Benjamin is three and Jack is six. We get outside a lot: rafting, hiking, fishing, camping, being with friends. Oh, and I’m an Olympic and power lifter. I train two to three times a week at Bullet Gym. I love the way it makes me feel. The physicality clears my head and creates balance.
Tell us the last book you read.
Steve Job’s biography. And Around the Year with Emmet Fox is always on my bedside table.
Do you have a favorite entertainment trend right now?
I’m wild about Songz.com right now. It’s kind of like the Audience Awards, but with curated music playlists instead of films.
What are your favorite film festivals?
Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Oxford Film Fest in my home state of Mississippi, and Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Festival in Colorado. My newest favorite is Slamdance in Utah, and I get to be there in January as part of an Audience Awards competition called Doc Challenge.