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Paige Williams

Paige Williams is the founder of the Audience Awards.

The Audience Awards is putting a spotlight on Montana female innovators as it brings its annual live film festival to Missoula for the first time.

The Garden City-based online video platform has been hosting the Audience Awards Film Festival in Los Angeles for the past three years, but decided to permanently move the event home, said Paige Williams, who founded the company in 2013.

And despite the move from an industry powerhouse like L.A. to a smaller town like Missoula, Williams said there are more filmmakers coming this year than ever before.

“I think Missoula is a destination spot that people are really interested in,” she said. “Especially for the arts and tech culture, and we can help lead that conversation.”

The live festival, also known as AudFest, runs Thursday-Sunday, Dec. 5-8, at the Roxy Theater and includes 100 of the best short films of the year selected from more than 20,000 submissions to their online platform.

The Audience Awards platform allows viewers from around the world to watch and select the top short films throughout the year during their hosted online film festivals, all leading up to the yearly live installment: AudFest.

Williams, a University of Montana alumni, started her career as a documentary filmmaker before she founded the Audience Awards.

She decided to bring the festival to Montana after demand rose from the filmmakers attending the L.A. events.

“Everyone was like, ‘I really want to come to Montana, why are we doing this in LA?’” she said.

Besides moving home, AudFest is also introducing an “innovation track,” which Williams said will provide a stage for Montana women to tell their stories and create impact.

“Why women? Because why not?” she said. “I know so many amazing women who really don’t get an opportunity in Montana to tell their stories, so I’m really happy to give them that here in Missoula.”

The innovation track will feature more than 25 female leaders in panel discussions, lightning rounds and fireside chats on topics ranging from company culture and talent acquisition to female-founded companies and gender equity in higher education.

“We work from the belief that stories impact the world and change the world,” Williams said. “So providing a stage for Montana women to tell their stories creates more impact.”

One of those women is Michelle Huie, founder and CEO of Vim & Vigr compression socks based in Missoula. Huie will participate in both the Montana Female Founders panel discussion as well as the fireside chat titled “Going From Expert to Idiot and Back Again.”

“I think there’s such an amazing opportunity and it’s so wonderful that this is the first year that Audience Awards is in Missoula, Montana,” Huie said. “There are and I’ve met phenomenal female entrepreneurs throughout Missoula and the state.”

Huie said she hopes to talk about the importance of taking risks in your career path and that the path is not always linear.

“I came from a background in biotech and health care and did that for 15 years and came up with the idea for Vim & Vigr in an industry I knew nothing about,” she said. “It’s about taking those risks and being OK with all the things you don’t know.”

Huie said the innovation track is a great way for Montana female entrepreneurs to pass on knowledge to women who are looking to start a business.

“The process of entrepreneurship can be overwhelming and can be seemingly a lonely one and the only way to get through it is by establishing a strong network of people and mentors and giving back as you progress in your own career,” Huie said. “By having it in Missoula, we’re letting people know there is a good number of people here and a support group here to help them through the process.”

On Friday, Dec. 6, Dr. Chelsea Bodnar will give a keynote speech focused on the University of Montana S.E.A. Change Initiative (safe, empowered, accelerated), which she launched this year to address the challenges women face in seeking equity in their careers and lives.

The innovation track portion will be held on Thursday-Friday, Dec. 5-6, at the Zootown Arts Community Center.

The festival includes 16 blocks of shorts curated by genre, including music, dance, romance, LGBTQ, women in film, comedy, environment and impact, adventure and horror.

Williams said her favorites are the animation and adventure blocks, but with so many genres, there’s something for everyone.

Each block supports a local nonprofit, which is part of the company’s “Give Back Initiative” to create impact through film. There will also be a Montana filmmaker meet-up on Saturday, Dec. 7, that is free and open to the public and is geared toward local filmmakers and film students.

Williams said she could see Missoula competing with Park City, home of the Sundance Film Festival, in terms of being a film destination, but in a different way.

“It’s a different world than it was 30, 20, even 10 years ago,” she said. “And the way that we consume video and media is totally different.”

She said she’s thrilled the festival is coming home and sees it as an opportunity to thank Missoula for the support they’ve given her company and the arts in general.

“I love flipping it on its head and being wrong that I thought it needed to be in L.A.,” Williams said. “I love that it needs to be in Missoula, Montana.”

For a full schedule and to purchase passes for the screening blocks or innovation track events, visit audienceawardsfilmfestival.com.

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