Interview with Joe Heyen (Cowtown Ballroom… Sweet Jesus!)

I originally did this interview with Joe Heyen for Microfilmmaker Magazine.  I decided to reprint it here as I think Joe has a lot of good things to say.

Joe Heyen is a Producer/Director who taught filmmaking at the college level for over 17 years.  He has produced over 300 films and multimedia projects.  He was the President of the Independent Filmmakers Coalition of Kansas City for several years, helping that group make over 600 short films and more than 30 features.

I first met Joe Heyen years ago.  He was the President of the Independent Filmmakers Coalition in Kansas City and he booked me to teach a workshop to the group.  I showed up in Kansas City not knowing what to expect, I had been on the road for 6 weeks already.  What I found was a large group of Independent Filmmakers who had banded together to make the films that they wanted and they were incredibly supportive of each other.  After the workshop most of the group moved to a bar around the corner and we all talked film until the place closed.  It was an amazing experience for me and is now one of my favorite stops on the tour.

Joe and I have become great friends (I was one of the people who helped him get his documentary Cowtown Ballroom…Sweet Jesus finished).  Like many of us, Joe knew that his film was probably not going to be picked up by a big distributor and if he was going to be successful he would have to do it on his own.  I have been watching Joe try out some new and different ideas with distribution that I think can work out for a lot of us.

Joe is amazingly active in the Missouri Independent Film scene.  In addition to distributing and promoting his film he seems to be spending more time working with groups all over the state and getting the lawmakers to continue supporting film in Missouri with tax incentives.  I was able to get him to slow down long enough to answer a few questions.

KB: How did you get involved in filmmaking in the first place?

JH: A long circuitous route…  I taught filmmaking at the college level for 17 years.  There’s an old joke that those who can’t do, teach.  I didn’t want to be the butt of that joke.

KB: I know you’ve always been a music fan, what made you decide to make Cowtown Ballroom…Sweet Jesus!?

JH: I had been to Cowtown, albeit only once–opening night in 1971–so I had a connection to the story.  But more than that, I wanted to talk about a period and place in history and in my life.  The movie is as much about when the whole hippie movement swept over the Midwest as it is about the Ballroom.  I thought it would be a good story.  That’s essential.  If you don’t have that, go do something else.

KB: Tell me about Cowtown Ballroom?

JH: Cowtown Ballroom was a music venue in Kansas City, Missouri for thirty-eight months from 1971 until 1974.  Almost every city had something similar—the Armadillo in Austin, the Fillmores, etc.  An old big band dance hall, it was a relatively small place which held less than 2000 people. The largest groups couldn’t play there, but it was a great place to perform for up-and-coming artists and more eclectic acts such as Van Morrison, B. B. King and Frank Zappa.  Beyond that, it was more than just a music venue, and became a home for the counter-culture.  That allowed us to talk about the shift in politics that occurred in the Midwest in the 60’s and 70’s.  So we were able to look at the civil rights, anti-war and feminist movements, as well as the explosion in the use of psychedelic drugs.

KB: How did you fund this film?

JH: Actually, it wasn’t too bad.  I self-financed.  Since we made it over a two-year period, I was able to put a couple of grand in every month and didn’t have to go into debt or put it on a credit card.  In the middle of production, we had a fundraiser which raised a few thousand dollars, and that really helped.  The last two months were considerably more expensive, but once it opened theatrically there was enough money coming in to offset those costs.  The movie has not yet made it into the black, but it is close.  Of course, if you figure our time into the cost of production (I didn’t take a day off for 2 ½ years) it’s a huge money loser!  If you get into independent film thinking you are going to get rich, you probably ought to consider other occupations.

KB: Basically it was you and Tony Ladesich, your DP for all of this.  Did you have other help?

JH: The credits last about three minutes because of all the people who volunteered and contributed to the production.  Philosophically, I don’t believe in paying for interviews.  Only one person asked, and we refused to interview him.  Everyone else worked for free, or at least for greatly reduced rates.  And while none of them have complained, next time out I’d like to pay them a bit more. I can never thank them enough, especially my producing partner Tony Ladesich who shot and edited the film.

KB: You did over 100 interviews, how did you track down all of these people after so many years?

JH: You do a ton of research, and make a ton of phone calls—I told you I didn’t take a day off.

Except for trips to Nashville and New England, we conducted our interviews around the Midwest to keep travel costs down.  Anytime I saw that one of the bands who played at Cowtown was appearing in the area, I worked feverishly to reach them in advance and get them to agree to an interview.  Most were cooperative.

It was essential to befriend the regulars who patronized the ballroom—to become part of the Cowtown family if you will.  Without their trust and cooperation, the movie would have been impossible to make.  Not only did they comprise the bulk of the interviews, but they contributed their photos, music, 8mm film and other memorabilia to the project.  Because they were there every night, it lent authenticity to the story.

KB: As the Producer were there any issues that drove you crazy that other filmmakers should think about before they jump in to making a film like this? (I am thinking specifically of rights issues with the archival footage.)

JH: Music rights were the biggest hassle.  The companies who handle publishing rights were not cooperative.  I had money to give them, but they refused to answer emails, snail-mails, faxes and phone calls.  If you have a $200 million dollar budget, I’m sure it would be different.  Small films, they could care less.

KB: You invoked the Fair Use Doctrine for some of the footage you used; can you briefly explain what it is and how filmmakers can use it?

JH: I’m not an attorney, and I don’t want to legally advise your readers.  In fact, if you ask most attorneys about Fair Use they will deny it even exists.  But it does, and has been recognized in many court decisions.  I would refer documentary filmmakers to the handbook:   Best Practices in Fair Use  http://www.centerforsocialmedia.org/sites/default/files/fair_use_final.pdf.  Download it, print it, and get to know it well.  A caveat:  anyone can take you to court, even if you are in the right.  In this litigious society, they probably will.

KB: You had an interesting distribution strategy, you did some theatrical screenings, what was that like and do you recommend it?

JH: Most independent filmmakers say their goal is to get “distribution”.  But their real goal should be to make a profit so that you have a track record to help you raise money to make your next film. Most films that get a distribution deal NEVER see any appreciable money. There is very little money in theatrical distribution, or even cable for that matter.

Next, and this is the best advice I can give your readers, NEVER SHOW YOUR MOVIE WITHOUT HAVING DVD’S AND OTHER MERCHANDISE THERE TO SELL.  Cowtown Ballroom…Sweet Jesus played in four theaters for sixteen weeks in Kansas City.  I went to almost every one of them—over 160 screenings—introduced the film and waited around until after it was over to sell DVD’s, posters and t-shirts.  Our crowds were good—we outdrew all the other films like Star Trek and Public Enemy at the multiplexes—but I made four times more money selling “merch” than I did selling tickets.  That’s where the profits are.

KB: You sold quite a few DVDs and other merchandise from your website, did you have a strategy to drive traffic to your site?

JH: Not a very good one.  I would do better next time.  Your email list and your friends on social media are your best allies.

KB: You were pretty aggressive about film festivals, did they help you or not?

JH: There is an old golf adage that you drive for show and putt for dough.  Festivals are driving.  You feel really good about them, but they cost you money.  I sold DVD’s at every festival screening to defray costs, and probably broke even.  When you go, you meet other filmmakers and expose your baby to new audiences, and you can’t put a price tag on those things.  Being an opening night film at the Austin Film Festival was one of the better moments of my life.  Festival strategy should be a chapter in a book.  There is not an easy three or four sentence answer.

KB: The other interesting thing you did was you put together live shows with various bands and performers from the film.  How did that come about and was it successful for you?

JH: I had an idea that the film would be a great “warm-up-band” for some of the rock acts that played the Ballroom, so we screened the film (in it’s entirety) in bars, theaters, and amphitheaters in front of concerts by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Poco, Brewer and Shipley, and Foghat.  I thought I might make some serious cash with this idea, but that didn’t materialize.  With the depressed economy last year, concert attendance was down.  Also, the crowds are at those concerts primarily to see the bands, so the audience buys the band’s CD’s before they buy your DVD’s.  It was fun though, and I would like to do a few more this year.

KB: What was the smartest decision you made with CowTown? What was the dumbest?

JH: Smartest:  Getting people involved in the film.  I made hundreds of new friends.  It reunited a community of people who had not seen each other in years.

Dumbest:  I should have paid our transcriptionists to do each interview as we filmed them.  I waited until we were all done to get transcripts typed up, and thought we could get them done in a month.  It took almost four months, and delayed our editing.

KB: What would you do differently next time?

JH: I would think about music earlier.  Also, now that I have a successful track record, I might try to raise at least some funds from investors.

KB: Where can I buy copies of your film?

www.cowbr.com

I recommend that all filmmakers read up on Fair Use laws, (http://www.centerforsocialmedia.org/sites/default/files/fair_use_final.pdf.) whether you make documentaries or not.  This is stuff we should all have some working knowledge of.  It’s only going to help us out in the future.  Think about what Joe has done as far as seeking opportunities to open his film up to a wider audience via concerts and making sure he always has merchandise ready wherever his film screens.  Is this something that you can apply to your own work?  And check out his website not just for copies of his DVD’s.  Check out his other merchandise and read some of the reviews of his film.

Joe is continuing his lobbying efforts on behalf of all of the filmmakers in Missouri and is always kind enough to have “my room” ready in his house whenever I am passing through the mid-west.

Joe Heyen is a true independent filmmaker and I am looking forward to seeing what he does next.