From Renegade Cigar Maker To Disruptive Film Maker
Cigar entreprenuer Marvin Samel is bringing a deeply-personal film he wrote and produced about his family to the world with love, humility, and knowledge that the odds are stacked against him. “We are the little movie that can,” says Samel.
In 2001, entrepreneur Marvin Samel was highlighted in Forbes, in an article titled “Cult Brands.” The article placed Drew Estate, the premium cigar company Samel co-founded with his fraternity brother Jonathan Drew, on par with such iconic brands as Krispy Kreme, Apple AAPL , and Harley Davidson.
Flash forward twenty-two years, and Samel is bringing his enterprising spirit to the always challenging movie-making business as the writer-director/producer of his first feature film iMordecai. Based on Samel’s real-life experiences, the film, which stars Judd Hirsch, Carol Kane, and Sean Astin, is an uplifting dramatic comedy about a Holocaust survivor whose life changes when his son buys him an iPhone.
From the get-go, Samel and Drew were expanding rather than following the cigar industry’s established parameters. Samel’s can-do attitude caught the attention of his competitors as well as his customers.
“Marvin Samel is one of the very few people that I’ve known and admired in my seven decades of life because he is fueled with so much passion, brilliant genius, and dedication. But what I admire and respect the most is that Marvin is a relentless fighter for what he believes in,” says Carlos Fuente Jr., 3rd generation cigar maker and Chairman of Arturo Fuente.
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In 2014, after 18 years and hundreds of millions of cigars purchased by loyal customers, Drew Estate was sold to Swisher International, becoming the premium cigar division for Swisher’s operations. That was also the year Samel’s wife Netta gave birth to their twin daughters, and his mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. As a coping mechanism, Samel began compiling the colorful stories of his family’s past that he had shared in order to entertain the audiences at cigar events he hosted.
Samel began to see the potential of making these stories into a film that might move people personally. He started writing a screenplay and collaborated with veteran screenplay writer Rudy Gaines.
Samel, with Gaines’s help, had created an inspiring story about healing and reconciliation that was an homage to Marvin’s family, particularly his father.
Script in hand, Samel had to figure out what steps to take next. A mutual friend introduced him to Dahlia Heyman, an award-winning screenwriter and former creative executive at World Film Group. Heyman came on board as a Producer and introduced Samel to industry veteran, and award-winner in his own right, Allen Bain, who agreed to be the film’s Executive Producer.
Heyman and Bain connected Samel with casting maven Avy Kaufman who set up a meeting with Judd Hirsch. In a Manhattan pizza place, Samel pitched to Hirsch that he was the actor to play his father, Mordecai. Hirsch wanted to know who was going to direct and was floored when Samel said he was. Samel explained why he was determined to direct the film himself – after all, it was his story about his family, so he had to be the one taking it from script to screen. What sealed the deal was Samel telling Hirsch he wanted Carol Kane to play Fela, Samel’s mother.
Hirsch called Kane who eventually accepted. With two of the three leads cast with acclaimed Oscar-nominated actors, Samel went for a trifecta and won – Sean Astin agreed to not only being directed by Samel but also to play him in the film.
Tony Award winner, Stephanie J. Block signed on to play Samel’s wife Netta and a casting call turned up a luminous newcomer, Azia Dinea Hale, to play a key role in the film as the young iPhone techie who reawakens Mordecai’s spirit of adventure. Four months later, down in South Florida, they were all on set making a movie.
After iMordecai was completed in 2021, Bain put Samel in touch with Creative Artists Agency to find a distributor, and one of their recommendations was Ed Arentz, co-president of the independent film distribution company Greenwich Entertainment.
“We knew that we had a film that would connect with the audience, that would move the audience, said Samel. “My dream was to be in theaters, and so I met with multiple distributors. Their offers seemed completely ridiculous to me. Fortunately, Ed Arentz of Greenwich Entertainment leveled with me saying that I was actually in a better financial position than the distributors who, post covid, were having a rough go of it. He recommended that instead of selling my baby and my soul to a distributor like him, the best way to turn my dream into reality would be for me to self-distribute, with him in an advisory capacity. That was all I needed to hear and FeMor Distribution was born. EP Allen Bain came on as CEO and along with Producer Dahlia Heyman, we are bringing iMordecai to the world with love, with humility, and with the knowledge that the odds are stacked against us, but we are the little movie that can.”
And iMordecai may be proof that Samel can beat the odds. Samel’s first feature has been doing exceptionally well on the nationwide and international film festival circuit, selected for 18 and counting. In Samel’s home state of Florida, iMordecai took the Audience Award at the Miami Jewish Film Festival.
Samel’s self-distribution plan ditches the formula of starting the theatrical release of the film with screenings in New York and Los Angeles. Samel determined that the film should open where it takes place, in South Florida. His vision for the film’s nationwide rollout is more than just an expansion into movie theaters across the country.
Samel calls it iMordecai on Tour, and he has conceptualized it as a first-of-its-kind in-depth experience with audience participation. He and the other cast members share behind-the-scenes, personal stories about how the movie came together — ambitions and successes as well as bumps in the road and wrong turns.
This opportunity to communicate directly with the audience thrills Samel. He’s always ready and willing to engage the audience in unapologetic and raw discussion.
A disruptor with a flair for innovation, Samel has brought the same energy and excitement with which he shook up the cigar business to presenting iMordecai on screens nationwide. Samel broke the mold of the cigar business and he’s determined to do the same thing to the film business.
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