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Fancy Rhino owners Drew Belz, left, and Isaiah Smallman talk business. The cousins just launched Mama Bear Studios.

Aside from being the hometown of actor Samuel L. Jackson, Chattanooga hasn't made much of a mark on Hollywood.

Isaiah Smallman hopes to change that.

Smallman and business partner Drew Belz founded Mama Bear Studios, a new production company in Chattanooga that plans to develop and produce feature films, television and original content.

The film business is an offshoot of Fancy Rhino, a Chattanooga-based creative content company founded by Smallman and Belz, who are cousins. It also has support from the Lamp Post Group, a Chattanooga "venture incubator" that provides capital and mentorship to startups — including Fancy Rhino.

Smallman hopes Mama Bear Studios will grow into "a nationally competitive independent movie studio."

The new business kicked things off last week with the digital release of "Low and Behold," a 2007 feature-length film based on real-life events in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. It's about a young insurance claim adjuster who risks his job to help a local man find his lost dog.

The film stars Barlow Jacobs who's the brother of Fancy Rhino's creative director Dan Jacobs.

"Low and Behold" won numerous festival awards and got rave reviews, Smallman said, but its debut during the 2008 financial collapse diminished its chances to get picked up by a big distributor.

"You can't really find it anywhere," Smallman said.

So, for the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Mama Bear Studios announced that it has partnered with the Sundance Institute #ArtistServices program to release "Low and Behold" on iTunes. That will be followed by releases on Amazon Instant Video, Microsoft Xbox, Sony Entertainment Network, SundanceNOW, VUDU and YouTube.

"We have a deal with the filmmakers where we receive a percentage of the proceeds in exchange for the work we've put into it," Smallman said.

Another project will get underway on Aug. 24, when crews in the Los Angeles area will start to film a new feature-length dramatic comedy that Mama Bear Studios helped bankroll.

"It's a movie about a guy who gets out of prison and is sort of piecing his life together," Smallman said. "We are one of the primary funders of production as well as creative development."

He declined to say how much Mama Bear Studios invested. He described the film as "micro-budget." The screenwriter of the film is represntated by Cinetic Media, of New York City, which has helped make such movies as "Boyhood" and "Little Miss Sunshine."

"The plan is to finish it and submit it for Sundance this year," Smallman said.

A small-budget film can cash in, Smallman said, if it's picked up by a big distributor at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

The four employees who comprise Mama Bear Studios are also working on three of their own scripts. The filming of one of the scripts will begin in mid-September with talent flown in from L.A.

"It's got four actors in it," Smallman said. "We're shooting it up on Lookout Mountain in a home. It's kind of a heist comedy."

Smallman declined to give many details about the films that Mama Bear Studios is working on. That's partly because of the litigious nature of the film business. Mama Bear Studios only talks to screenwriters represented by agents, Smallman said, because it's surprisingly common for screenwriters to claim that movie makers stole the screenwriters' ideas after turning down films.

So, while Mama Bear Studios is happy to speak with aspiring Chattanooga-area filmmakers, Smallman isn't looking for any unsolicited movie scripts.

"I would say, no, unfortunately," he said. "My lawyers won't let me read it."

Chris Dortch, the founder of the Chattanooga Film Festival, is happy that Mama Bear Studios is in business.

"I love that these guys are trying to make feature films," Dortch said.

He said commercial and and industrial films are made in Chattanooga.

"To me, that's not good enough," Dortch said. "Now we're starting to reach for that brass ring."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or www.facebook.com/tim.omarzu or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.

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