The Audience Awards: Montana Entrepreneur Leverages Technology to Increase Visibility for Filmmakers and Businesses

by Shannon Furniss

It started with a little “Cats vs. Griz” rivalry. Students from the University of Montana and Montana State University submitted their favorite short films to an online competition and then had two weeks to spread the word – via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and in person – and encourage friends to vote for their films. The student with the most votes would win the competition. The idea caught on, and today the social networking service that hosted the Montana competition now has 650,000 views from all over the world and expects to quadruple that by this summer.

The Audience Awards is an online social platform that connects content creators, filmmakers, and film festivals to audiences, according to Paige Williams, founder and CEO of the Missoula-based company that launched as a beta site in November 2013. Then in June 2014, after learning from the beta site, Williams relaunched with the “Cats vs. Griz” competition.

The site features short-film competitions where the film with the most votes wins, Williams explains. By competing, filmmakers can win cash awards and gain global exposure for their films. They also can raise money to support their filmmaking career through a “crowd fund” on their profile page or through an ad campaign. By sponsoring a competition, businesses gain brand engagement and social visibility. An app that was launched just last week will keep audiences up-to-date on competitions through push notifications and provide entertainment news.

“We are a social network site that functions a little bit like Facebook for filmmakers and their audiences,” said Williams.

A high-tech business with the growth potential of The Audience Awards could be located anywhere in the U.S., but Williams wanted to be in Montana. “It’s an efficient place to do business,” she said. “I didn’t have to be in the Silicon Valley bubble and I didn’t have to give away too much of the company to hire the people I needed to make the business come to fruition. Montanans are great people to do business with and have relationships with.”

From Mississippi to Montana

A filmmaker by trade, Williams spent many years traveling to film festivals across the U.S. Her documentary, “Mississippi Queen,” screened in about 30 film festivals, won six awards, and was distributed in 6 countries. “Mississippi Queen” told the story of Williams growing up in a devout Christian family in the South. Another documentary, “From Place to Place,” followed two Montana kids who grew up in the foster care system. A Washington, D.C. policymaker saw the film, and the two ended up traveling to the U.S. Capitol to tell their stories about foster care, which eventually inspired legislative changes to the system.

In 1999, Williams left Mississippi and headed to Montana. She attended the University of Montana where she graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in media arts and a master’s in theatre directing. In 2006, she founded Porch Productions, a company that produces documentary films, feature narrative films, and television concepts. She also spent five years teaching in the UM School of Business Administration’s Entertainment Management program. In 2013, Williams won the Missoulian’s “Top 20 under 40.”

The idea of the Audience Awards came to Williams while she was helping the Montana Film Commissioner, Deny Staggs, create a Montana YouTube channel. The challenge was to figure out how to get content, provide an audience, and bring engagement. “There are a ton of videos on YouTube,” said Williams. “Unless you make the funniest cat video ever, hardly anyone will see your video.”

Then she remembered that her favorite part of a film festival was winning the audience awards because it meant that the people she made the film for thought hers was the best. By letting the audience choose the winners, filmmakers would have the power to market their own films and drive their own audience to watch the films, said Williams. This concept was the basis for her new company.

Creating High-Tech Jobs

Located at the Montana Enterprise Technology Center (MonTEC) just across the Clark Fork River from the University of Montana, Williams has a pleasant view of the river and the “M” on Mount Sentinel just above UM’s Main Hall. MonTEC serves as a business incubator for entrepreneurs and start-ups and has provided her company with opportunities and connections, she said. And she can walk down the hall any time to chat with some of the other up-and-coming entrepreneurs.

A recently awarded grant from the Montana Department of Commerce will help Williams create 15 high-paying tech jobs over the next two years. She already has hired five employees and has a crew of interns from UM’s business school. The marketing team spends the days reaching out to filmmakers and film festivals, making contacts, writing articles, designing newsletters and website banners, and building a community. Developers work on the website, new profile pages, apps, and programming. Right now the developers are working on “weighted voting” where the more a person uses the site, the more his or her vote will count. This is important because people are only allowed to vote once a day for films.

Building Relationships

Williams spends her days managing the company and working on relationship building to bring in new contracts for the Audience Awards. The first contract she brought in was for the “Cats vs. Griz” film competition, and the sponsors were UM’s Blackstone LaunchPad and the Montana Film Office. In January, Williams will host a competition for the Montana Office of Tourism, whose goal is to promote tourism in the state. She will put out a call for 1-minute videos in five categories featuring Montana, and the tourism office will provide $40,000 in prize money. In return, the Audience Awards will provide the agency with content to share and audience engagement. It also will create a social media buzz and bring brand visibility – and probably some more tourists, said Williams.

In February, the “Senior Shorts” competition will launch, with entries from high school seniors interested in attending the University of Montana in the fall of 2015. The sponsors of this competition are the University of Montana, UM’s Entertainment Management program, and Media Arts, who are all partnering to recruit students. The winning filmmaker will receive $1,000. If he or she chooses to attend UM, the student will receive a $1,000 scholarship if majoring in Media Arts and another $1,000 if he or she registers for the Entertainment Management program.

By leveraging film and creativity through technology, Williams is able to help meet organization’s needs – like bringing tourists to Montana or recruiting students to UM. This strategy can be applied to many different brands, she said.

Not all of competitions are Montana-centric. Many of her other competitions focus on international topics and have filmmakers from all over the world. For example, “Indigenous People,” a current competition, has filmmakers from Yugoslavia, Canada, England, and other countries.

Connecting Graduates with Tech Companies

One of the challenges of being in a high-tech business in Montana, is that it’s hard to find developers, and they are a critical part of her operation, said Williams. Many of the computer science graduates who would like to stay in Montana leave because they can’t find high-paying jobs.

One organization that Williams has become involved with is working to solve this problem. The Montana High Tech Business Alliance, a statewide membership organization that launched in April and has grown to 110 high tech firms, has a jobs portal that helps connect Montana companies to qualified workers and aims to keep graduates from leaving the state.

“There is such a huge need for a jobs portal,” said Williams, who has just been appointed to the Alliance’s statewide board of directors. “It was really hard to find developers in the state, and I believe the Alliance is doing the work of connecting people.”  In fact, she recently interviewed a developer from Iowa that she found through the jobs portal who is interested in coming to Montana.

At the Alliance’s fall reception, Williams connected with a UM computer science professor who is charged with helping students find jobs after graduation. Though she had taught on campus for the past five years, she had never been to the computer science department. The professor found out about The Audience Awards at the reception and connected with Williams to engage his students with her company’s high-tech environment.

Another benefit of being associated with the Alliance, is that the organization is positioned to be the leader in telling the story to the world about high tech companies in Montana. According to Williams, telling a good story is the most important part of filmmaking, and it’s just as important in business.

“We’re a small town – Montana,” said Williams. “It’s important to get all of our stories out there on a global level so that we’re recognizable.”  For example, companies like LMG Security, Mamlode, and The Audience Awards, to name a few, are high-tech global companies operating within a mile of each other. That story needs telling, she said.

Because she works in the film industry and is always on the phone with New York or California, it is especially important that Montana is viewed as a high-tech state, she said.

“When I call and they see 406 on the phone, I need them to remember some story they read about how great it is to do business in Montana,” said Williams. “And to know that I didn’t come to work on a horse today.”

And about that first “Cats vs. Griz” competition that launched The Audience Awards?  “Unfortunately, the Cats won,” she said with a laugh.

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