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Urban undertaking

Smith building pic Momentum

NEW YORK — Will Smith is backing a new theatrical distribution company that will bypass the multiplex and unspool indie African-American films in nontraditional venues, borrowing from the live urban theater movement popular among black auds.

The Momentum Experience was formed by principal partners and movie producers Nia Hill and D’Angela Steed, along with thesp Duane Martin. Smith and actress Tisha Campbell-Martin are investing partners.

“The vision of this team is inspiring, and their goals address a definite need in the African-American entertainment community,” Smith said.

Actor Blair Underwood, also an investing partner, is chair of the company’s advisory board.

Momentum intends to release four or five films a year, beginning with the bow of its romantic comedy “The Seat Filler” on July 20 at Atlanta’s historic Fox Theater.

“This unique distribution model was born out of a shared desire by everyone involved to control the African-American cinematic image from start to finish,” said Hill, who is CEO of Momentum.

Momentum films will screen in playhouses and concert theaters, some of which are former movie palaces, like the Fox.

And in keeping with African-American filmmakers who self-distributed in the early 1900s, such as Oscar Michaeux, Momentum will provide live entertainment before the movie begins. Entertainment could include music performed from the soundtrack or standup comedy.

“Seat Filler,” directed by Nick Castle, stars Martin, Destiny’s Child singer Kelly Rowland and Shemar Moore (“Diary of a Mad Black Woman”). Screenplay was penned by Mark Brown, Martin and Campbell-Martin.

Film will play for one night only in 20 top urban markets, including in some cities where Destiny’s Child will be playing on tour. A special trailer of “Filler” will play during a concert intermission.

Hill and Underwood told Daily Variety that black auds attending live urban theater known as “Chittlin’ Circuit” or “Gospel Play Movement” historically buy tickets in the last week before a performance. Hence, Momentum will concentrate its marketing efforts during the final week.

Hill said Momentum will support films otherwise destined for straight-to-DVD release. She said her venture already is in talks with some of the major studios about using the Momentum pipeline for small-budget pics.

“There is such a dearth of great characters and stories being told from the African-American perspective,” Underwood said.

“But the most exciting thing for me and the audience will be the experience itself and the live entertainment component, which comes as theaters and exhibitors look for a way to entice people back into the theater,” Underwood said.

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