ON THE MARKET - Freedom Hill GM has eye for entertainment talent

By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

Joseph A. Bellanca began honing his negotiating skills at a very early age. When he was just a kid, Bellanca would negotiate with his parents how much he would eat for dinner.

Maybe it was the peas, or corn, or the meatloaf, or the pasta dish. Didn't matter. The conversation would go something like this:

Joe and Rose Bellanca - "Why don't you take five more bites?"

Little Joey - "Why don't I take NO more bites!"

J & R - "Why don't you take four more bites?"

LJ - "Why don't I take No more bites!"

You get the picture. This would go on until both sides agreed that dinner would end when Joseph took two more bites.

"This was a running joke in our house," Bellanca said.

But apparently those early semi-argument battles led to a lifelong dream of being an attorney. And on top of that, Bellanca now negotiates for top entertainment talent as the general manager of Freedom Hill Amphitheatre in Sterling Heights.

"I do anything and everything to get people in the door," said Bellanca, now into his second year as general manager there. "I couldn't be more fortunate to do what I do. This has turned into a very good opportunity for me."

Bellanca, 29, was born in Detroit, and attended Eisenhower High School in Shelby Township, graduating in 1999. He played football and basketball there, and imagined a career in sports, like so many do, until reality set in.

"Any boy growing up has a desire to play sports," he said. "But I decided to use my brain instead of my body."

His next career path leaned toward sports medicine. But he soon turned that toward the law.

"I also always had a desire to argue," Bellanca said, harkening back to those legendary dinner-time debates.

Another part is his mother, Rose, who was involved in labor and contract relations with the school district she worked for while he was growing up. She now is Provost for Northwood University in Palm Beach, Fla., staying in the education field her entire career.

His father, Joe, is a senior sales manager for WWJ TV in Detroit.

After high school, Bellanca attended Michigan State University, and graduated in 2003 with a bachelor of arts in human resources and society. But he knew early on that law school was in his immediate future. Bellanca said he wanted to combine his passion for law into his other love, which was sports and entertainment.

His first year of college, Bellanca was a legislative intern and learned much about how law are legislated.

When it was time to attend law school, Cooley was his first choice. He attended the Auburn Hills campus.

"I wanted to be close to home," he said. "And Cooley has a reputation for putting out hard working and well-trained attorneys."

Bellanca said Cooley is a school known for its close ties to its professors.

"They expect a lot out of us, but also give us the tools we need," he said.

Between MSU and Cooley, Bellanca took an unpaid internship at Freedom Hill, where he got a taste of working in the entertainment field.

"I worked 40 to 50 hours a week, reviewed press releases and advertising materials for artists, and did a lot of other things," he said.

He would deliver vouchers to local businesses, set up meet-and-greets with the artists, and handle a number of tasks that would enhance his love, and skills, for the business.

While there, he made a favorable impression on one of the owners, Joe Vicari, who told Bellanca to call him someday if he needed help with anything.

In 2004, Bellanca obtained a paid position at Freedom Hill as a market coordinator, and did that until he entered law school.

While at Cooley, Bellanca also worked as a legal intern and summer clerk for a local law firm, assisting in the drafting of wills, trusts, and powers of attorney.

He also handled research on issues to be litigated in probate court, such as distribution of assets, and also some copyright infringement work relating to entertainment law.

Later, Bellanca worked for Sports Management Network Inc., where he learned a number of things, including drafting legal contracts for high profile national and international sports personalities, pursued endorsement and sponsorship opportunities for professional coaches and athletes with international corporations.

He also introduced new partners Kenwood and Buffalo Wild Wings as sponsors for Indy Car and NASCAR drivers.

"I learned so much there," he said. "They taught me you could always do better."

At SMN, Bellanca credits John Caponigro as one person in particular, among the many who have guided him.

"I've been fortunate in the past to work with some really good people who have mentored me," he said.

In late 2007, Bellanca worked his externship as law clerk for several of his father's cousins at Bellanca, Beattie and DeLisle, a Harper Woods law firm.

Among his other duties, represented indigent defendants in minor criminal cases in district court, and did more work on research in constitutional, construction, civil and criminal law and real estate and estate planning.

In 2008, Bellanca graduated from Cooley, and later, returned as general manager at Freedom Hill. The venue is independently owned and operated and has been around since 1999.

The 7,000-seat amphitheatre has attracted a number of strong national acts over the years, including B.B. King, Don Henley, 311, ZZ Top, Alice Cooper, Al Green, Sheryl Crow and others.

The season there generally begins in May, and hosts high school graduations, as well as concerts.

It also hosts fund-raisers for Detroit Public Television, and has also been the site of two Presidential rallies - for George W. Bush in 2004, and the John McCain/Sarah Palin campaign stop in 2008.

"It's a very clean and accessible facility, and the staff treats everyone extremely well," Bellanca said of Freedom Hill.

Bellanca also credit's the general manager he replaced, Kevin Cassidy, as a person who really showed him the ropes during his unpaid and part-time jobs at Freedom Hill.

"He made my transition there easier than it could have been," Bellanca said.

Bellanca also impressed Cassidy, and others at Freedom Hill.

"Joe Bellanca was a young, energetic guy who started at Freedom Hill as an intern," Cassidy said. "We immediately knew we had a bright and creative person who wanted to learn as much as he could every day that he came to work."

He said Bellanca "had a knack of getting things done, whether it be overall execution of marketing campaigns or convincing tour managers that 'Meet and Greets' needed to be done on a per show basis."

Cassidy said Bellanca also was able, through his leadership, to have people his age or older "gravitating to him for direction on creative, marketing and operations issues."

Cassidy now co-owns FunFest Productions Inc., an events and festival company that operated three major festivals last summer that drew more than 700,000 guests.

He also works with the Andiamo Celebrity Showroom on booking and marketing shows.

Bellanca said both owners of Freedom Hill, Vicari and Gary Roncelli, have been "excellent mentors."

"They have really treated me well and groomed me for where I am now."

"The areas of sports and entertainment in any fashion has always been fun, and it's an attractive career," Bellanca said. I truly enjoys this so much, it's not really work."

Freedom Hill has a $2 million yearly talent budget. Bellanca stays busy year-round checking to see which groups will be touring during there operational months and deciding which of those groups to pursue, based on a number of factors, including price and competition.

Freedom Hill competes with DTE, Meadowbrook, and the Detroit and Windsor, Ontario casinos, among other places.

Bellanca will negotiate performance contracts with the groups they secure, and works constantly building and maintaining relationships with national and local concert promoters, which includes giants such as Live Nation, Philip Citron and AEG.

He also is in charge of the management and supervision of the hundred-plus employees who work in Freedom Hill's guest services, box office, parking and in-house productions.

Bellanca also develops and implements marketing, advertising and promotional services with radio, television and print outlets to generate attendance at shows, a job made that much tougher because of the state's weak economy.

"Detroit has a lot of interest in music, and that at times makes it tough," he said, noting that Freedom Hill will not seek just any show just to fill up its schedule.

Bellanca is also constantly checking other venues across the country to see what and how they are doing.

"I'm very lucky to be involved in the entertainment industry," he said. "There are hundreds of people who would like to be a part of it."

While the economy is suffering nationwide, it is especially hard hit in Michigan. Bellanca said attendance was good, but down, this past summer.

Still, he wants to remain in Michigan, and believes the state can continue to attract talent and maintain its unique place among the East and West coast entertainment capitals.

"While the rest of the economy is suffering, the entertainment industry is providing one of the good things going on in Michigan," he said..

And with the recent push and several successes by Gov. Jennifer Granholm to attract the film industry, Bellanca said that is also an area he will try to get involved in the months to come.

"There's no reason you can't do this job in Detroit," he said. "The musicians are here, there's an association with Motown, Kid Rock, M7M, and with films now in Michigan, it's all a motivating factor for me."

And he is giving back to Cooley, too.

He will soon become involved in the school's "Lunch with a Lawyer" program, where students can question real attorneys to help them decide their own future.

In May 2009, Bellanca married Maureen, also a trademark and copyright attorney. The two met while taking a course studying for the State Bar exam.

"She's very supportive, and encourages me all the time," he said. "She's a great partner and has good ideas."

As if that alone isn't enough, Bellanca also runs his own law firm, representing clients in the areas of sports, entertainment, copyright, trademark and real estate, as well as handling criminal law cases.

He is also on the Macomb County District Courts court-appointed list.

"It keeps me really busy, and I like that because it doesn't allow my mind to lapse," he said of juggling all those eggs. "I love those daily challenges. I don't like to be complacent. I want to do more, and do it well."

Published: Tue, Nov 17, 2009

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