November 2, 2006

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Concord Publisher's Note: Red River takes a dive
By†Dan Szczesny

I suppose it was only a matter of time before the folks responsible for the Red River Theatres project took a misstep. Who could have predicted, however, that the mistake would end up being a result of hubris, and be so terribly damaging?

Iíve written quite a bit about the soon-to-be open independent cinema in the Capital Commons building. This project is shaping up to be quite beneficial to the city, both economically and as a destination for movie buffs from all over New England.

But I have also written with zeal because I, and so many other folks familiar with Concord, knew that the guy leading the Red River charge was Barry Steelman.

Steelman owns Cinema 93, right around the corner from Capital Commons. To many, Steelman is the very personification of independent cinema in New Hampshire. It is through his sheer force of personality that Red River was created to begin with.

Last week, Steelman resigned. Why? Because the board he created refused to commit to hiring him as the theaterís programming director. Instead, board chairwoman Emily Rice said that no staffing positions can be created until an executive director is found.

How preposterous.

Steelman, Iím sure, is a fan of old monster movies. I wonder if he realized, even as he was building this project and creating this board, that his Frankenstein monster would eventually destroy him.

Fans of Steelman and of cinema should be outraged. But wait, the arrogance of chairman Rice does not end with her turning her back on Steelmanís credentials, experience and local connection. No, she had to pour salt in the wounds by defending the boardís mistreatment of Steelman by saying that itís the communityís project now.

Thanks for all youíve done, Barry ... donít let the projection room door hit you on the way out!

One apologist excuse for the boardís behavior has been to point out that since some public money will be spent on the theater, higher standards need to be applied and the board must not play favorites. The argument is dead on, but the boardís actions illustrate the exact opposite of setting higher standards.

Because public money is being spent, the board was ethically bound to select a candidate well-suited for the role. To simply hide behind an as-yet-not-hired executive director is lazy and irresponsible.

The obvious answer would have been to enter into some form of employment discussion with Steelman while beginning the search for a director. Steelman could have been offered a temporary position, to be reviewed after the new director was aboard.

When it comes to maintaining the highest level of community experience and skill, the board should have gone out of its way to consider the benefit of having Barry Steelman on board. Instead, the board took the easy way out. It passed the buck, and in so doing has damaged the theaterís credibility with the very movie fans it hopes to attract.