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Film Exposes 'Cutthroat' Life of Street Recruiters

NEW YORK — If you ask Sean Slater, one of the most cutthroat jobs in New York doesn't involve selling, or buying — it consists of giving away free movie passes.

A subculture of recruiters exists within the city — people who make a living by standing on the street and flagging down strangers to promote goods and services. And in this ruthlessly competitive industry, the crews that hand out free movie passes are at the bottom of the food chain, according to Slater.

He should know — to make ends meet as an actor, Slater has been working part-time for the recruiting company The Screening Exchange for more than 10 years, and he has his share of crazy stories.

"New Yorkers are highly suspect, and not interested in taking anything, so it becomes strangely competitive," he told DNAinfo. "You have this underlying sense of competition based on location. You don't want to be on the same block as other recruiters like Planned Parenthood asking for stuff, because there's this sense of all kinds of vying for the same space."

His stories are the subject of his latest film, "Recruiter." Selected Tuesday for the Best Narrative Feature for the 2012 Metropolitan Film Festival of New York, the independent film is set to debut to the public July 11 at the East Village's Anthology Film Archives.

The movie, based on his own experiences, follows a character named Jeff who "faces constant rejection and outright hostility from the people he encounters, and struggles to maintain his dignity against a seemingly cold and indifferent city," Slater says on the film's Kickstarter page.

In the film, Slater, who is also a senior company member with the Actor's Theatre Workshop, delves into the mysterious hierarchy that exists between movie recruiters and other folks manning the streets. He unveils recruiters' most popular — and competitive — areas, including Lincoln Center, Union Square, and even the block outside Century 21 on the Upper West Side.

The film also highlights the tensions he's felt from those who work for nonprofits such as Planned Parenthood, or the "annoying" comedy recruiters who force jokes on unsuspecting bystanders.

"The charity people are doing it for a cause and the comedy guys usually just doing it for stage time as comedians. Movie recruiters [on the other hand] are professional street promoters," Slater, 28, explained.

"It's an art form that goes back to the old circus and vaudeville 'barkers' who used to stand on the street and try to get people to come into the saloons to see the show."

Slater, the film's director and one of the supporting actors, plays the character Seth, who sees himself as the top recruiter in the food chain because he gets the most confirmed movie attendees.

In the movie, Seth manages to get between 50 to 70 people to actually attend a film, for every 100 passes he gives out, which in real life would be quite a feat, given that the passes are handed out to people of specific demographics, limited by race or age.

For example, during a recent outing in real life, Slater had the challenge of finding only white men to hand out the passes to for the movie "Ted," having to reject any women or other ethnicity  because he had a demographic quota to fill for his boss.

"It's all just very selective, because it's about targeted market research," Slater explained. "It requires a certain level of fitness, and of course the ability to engage people."

In the movie, as Jeff and Seth go through their day-to-day challenges, Slater touches upon quirky — and often threatening or hostile — characters the duo meet on the street, trying to sift out viable candidates who won't be offended by demographic limitations.

Although he admits that the film is fictional, many of the characters in the film are based on experiences he's had in real life, just while standing on the street doing his job.

There's the woman on the Upper West Side, for example, who threatened to call the police on him just last week, after accusing him of being a racist.

Or the man who also accused him of being racist, and managed to drive away business for an afternoon by shouting "Don't take passes from a racist!" on 72nd Street.

There's also the gentleman who quoted an entire passage of the Constitution to him in front of the Farmer's Market in Union Square, telling Slater that he was breaking the law because he was being discriminatory to people because of their ages.

Often, he gets elderly people who are very offended because the cutoff age for free movie passes for most films is 50 years old. Most of the time, he tries to bend the truth to make them feel better.

"Sometimes to dissuade elderly people I tell them it's a horror movie," he admitted. "Or I tell them, 'it's really adolescent grossed out humor — you wouldn't like it.'"

"People get very emotional about it," he laughed.

The intensity of people's reactions, and the feelings he's encountered in response, have definitely affected the film's mood, he added.

"The humor was in that dark kind of humor. It comes from that feeling of desperation and frustration and angst," he said.

"People take this stuff very seriously — arguing over sidewalk space. It's all very funny, and people will watch it and laugh, because it's believable."