Audience Awards moves to Missoula this week, with spotlight on women filmmakers

Paige Williams

Amid the highly charged #MeToo movement, female filmmakers will command the spotlight this week as Paige Williams brings her popular Audience Awards festival to Missoula.

Dubbed the AudFest: Film + Innovation Festival, the four-day event will screen 100 short films – all at the Roxy Theater – and offer a wide array of related live events at the newly opened Zootown Arts Community Center.

The event looks to engage attendees on topics ranging from talent acquisition to company culture, investing in female-founded companies and addressing gender equity in higher education. 

Williams, the Audience Awards founder, CEO and Missoula resident, is primed to present her hard-won festival to hometown audiences. 

“Storytelling through filmmaking has immense potential to impact important causes and launch discussions to create change,” she said. “That’s why it was important for me to bring my festival to Montana. I love living and working here and see opportunity to inspire creativity and entrepreneurship, especially among female voices.” 

Williams and her staff see Missoula as a natural draw for the groundbreaking festival because of the city’s picturesque valley, enticing outdoor recreation, cultural charm and technical innovation. 

Held in Los Angeles in 2017 and 2018, the AudFest will screen the 100 best short films of the year from the Audience Awards’ online video platform, which hosts more than 20,000 annual short film submissions from filmmakers around the globe. Festival attendance in Los Angeles proved healthy, with about 3,000 film-goers each day. 

Missoula audiences can view films covering a wide array of genres, including LGBTQ, women in film, environment and impact, plus “lighter” subjects featuring music, dance, romance, comedy and horror.

As a video platform, the Audience Awards showcases creative and industrious women filmmakers – rarified air until recent years.

But as women visibly gain more power and prominence in the independent film industry and Hollywood in the wake of the #MeToo movement, Williams’ company will continue what it’s done since 2013, when she founded the Audience Awards. 

The platform specializes in connecting aspiring filmmakers with sponsors, festivals and media outlets. She said the time is ripe for women to exert their authority, take ownership and determine the genres of film that they create, direct, produce, write, act in and promote. 

“A lot is changing right now,” Williams said. “We want to show female creators, leaders and everyone who strives to make a difference the amazing potential for growth within themselves, within their fields, and within their communities and beyond.” 

Female leaders and “change makers” headlining the AudFest Innovation Track include Missoula’s Sherri Davidoff, LMG Security CEO; Alexandra Viglione, Cinedigm product marketing director from Los Angeles; and Lisa Stone, WestRiver Group’s Opportunity Fund managing director and BlogHer co-founder.

“AudFest is magical in its design — it is uniquely Montanan as well as turns the mic over to women innovators, working on some of the most pressing challenges of our time,” said Holly Truitt of Missoula, a lead AudFest Innovation speaker and owner of Holly Truitt Consulting. “And make no mistake, Montana women and innovation go together like birds of a feather.” 

Other familiar Montana women leaders on the docket are business leaders from non-film industries, such as Elke Govertsen, MyVillage CCO; Deb Poteet of Poteet Construction; Spider McKnight of CrazyLoveCo.; Chelsea Bodnar, Ahana Pediatrics founder; and Carol Williams, Montana’s first female minority and majority leader in the state Legislature.

Originally a documentary filmmaker, Williams remains a persistent, vocal supporter of the Montana film industry and start-up community. She envisions room for even more growth, especially among female entrepreneurs.

Her company has worked with Hilton Worldwide, 21st Century Fox, Better Business Bureau and GoDaddy as thoroughfares supporting filmmakers and producing valuable content for their partnership brands.

Among Innovation Track sponsors is the University of Montana’s Safe, Empowered, Accelerated (SEA) Change initiative, created to seek greater equity for all women leading up to the August 2020 centennial celebrating the full ratification of the 19th Amendment, when women won the right to vote in 1920. 

Kelly Webster, SEA Change initiative leader and UM President Seth Bodnar’s chief of staff, said AudFest aligns with its mission:

“We believe higher education is an ideal forum for driving societal change that promotes safety, empowerment and acceleration of all women. Inclusive change that benefits all requires that women be in the room and on the stage in places like AudFest. When we elevate women’s voices, we inspire steps forward for women in our community and our world.”