‘Def’ duo opens urban pix gate

Pact targets slate of 12 films per year, most direct-to-vid

Hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons and TV vet Stan Lathan, who last partnered on Broadway hit “Def Poetry Jam,” have created a new entertainment company boasting a linchpin agreement with Lions Gate to co-produce and acquire movies targeting urban auds.

Based in L.A., Simmons Lathan Media Group will produce or acquire filmed-entertainment projects for distribution in theaters, homevid and the Internet. Keying on partners’ longtime association with hip-hop music, SLMG aims to amass a large “hip-hop library” of film properties for long-term exploitation.

Details of its corporate financing weren’t disclosed. But execs said lead investors include a pair of minority-oriented venture capital firms, Syncom Communications and Pacesetter Growth Fund.

The two-year Lions Gate pact targets a slate of up to 12 urban pics per year with most going directly to homevideo. Lions Gate has agreed to co-finance up to four original productions annually, with acquired titles forming the balance of the slate.

SLMG aims to use aspiring young directors on its original productions. Brett Ratner (“Red Dragon,” “Rush Hour”), who has known Simmons since the helmer’s musicvid days, will help identify first-time directors, officials said.

Beyond Beverly Hills

“There’s just so much talent out there, and now the opportunities won’t just be for the kids who have fathers in Beverly Hills who are directors and have natural opportunities,” Simmons said. “They will also be for the kids who are at home in the middle of Nebraska who will be able to show their ability without being under the thumb of a limited vision or range. It used to be you could walk around Malibu and get your new talent, but that ain’t gonna happen anymore. It’s going to come from Harlem, from the trailer parks.”

Lathan said the new venture will be similarly liberating for its principals.

“We want to get into a game in which we can control our own destiny,” he said. “We also hope to allow some first-time directors to get out there and do their thing, and will be of benefit to everybody.”

A first release is planned for fall, but execs declined to reveal individual titles or other slate details.

Image homevid

SLMG has also struck a separate homevid pact with Image Entertainment to handle distribution of “non-narrative” titles such as docus and stand-up comedy releases.

SLMG plans to make occasional acquisitions for syndie TV, and pay-per-view and video-on-demand agreements are being finalized to provide an additional TV window for various projects. SLMG has already struck an agreement with AltNet/Kazaa to provide digital content for various Internet destinations, and live-event promotion is also planned.

“We’re trying to produce and acquire titles to distribute through as many outlets as possible,” SLMG prexy Will Griffin said. “It’s just that basic.”

Hip-hop realm

Simmons, who serves as SLMG chairman, has built an array of hip-hop-related businesses over the past 20 years such as Def Jam Records, Phat Farm Clothing and Oneworld Magazine.

Lathan brings to his CEO post a background in urban television, creating skeins including “Martin,” “Moesha, “The Steve Harvey Show” and others.

Griffin is the former chief operating officer of digital production company Urban Entertainment and previously was general manager of News Corp.’s eUniverse Network, a digital entertainment business.

Simmons and Lathan have partnered on entertainment projects together since 1989 through Simmons Lathan Entertainment. “Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam on Broadway,” produced by Simmons, Lathan and others, recently won a Tony award in the special theatrical event category (Daily Variety, June 9.)

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