Women Behind Canadian TV: Cynthia Amsden

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Amsden
Photo courtesy of Cynthia Amsden

When it comes to unit publicity, it’s all about finding an angle of interest. If a publicist can get the press and fans to take notice of their TV show then they’ve done their job. Roundstone Communications’ Cynthia Amsden is a unit and festival publicist that has been drawing interest on Canadian TV series such as Killjoys, Lost Girl, Orphan Black, The Expanse, Letterkenny, and the upcoming Vagrant Queen, just to name a few. She’s currently working on the upcoming Season 5 of CBC’s Baroness von Sketch Show and is the first publicist to join our Women Behind Canadian TV series

Amsden shared with us how a career in investigative journalism led her to start doing publicity for feature films before finding her way onto TV sets. She detailed the responsibilities that go with the unit publicist position on a series and how women tend to thrive at the position. In addition to her publicist duties, Amsden co-chairs the CAFTCAD Awards (The Canadian Alliance for Film and Television Costume Arts and Design). The awards, held this year on March 1, 2020 and hosted by Baroness stars Aurora Browne and Jennifer Whalen, aim to celebrate Canadian costume arts and design.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The TV Junkies: Let’s first talk a little about your background. How did you get into publicity and working for film and television?

Cynthia Amsden: I started my career doing investigative reporting. The first big story I had was four-time killer Terry Fitzsimmons. He took the HIV-positive blood of his last victim and injected himself with it before turning himself into the police. That’s how I got my first big story in The Globe and Mail. Five days after our last interview, he hung himself in his cell. It was that story that led to me getting a call from Polygram Filmed Entertainment. They wanted me to come do a junket for Dead Man Walking and interview Susan Sarandon. That’s what really got me into the film world. I remember saying to them, ‘I’m just a journalist. I can’t afford to fly to New York.’ They said ‘We’ll pay for it!’

So I started doing more junkets and opened up the Canadian Weekly Syndicate. It doesn’t exist now, because it was just me, but it was an alternative weekly magazine like Now. There’s one of those in every city, but at the time their circulations were too small for any distributor to send them on a junket. I grouped them all together into a syndication and went to the film distributors and told them I had readership over 1 million people. I’d tell them to send me down to do the junkets. Once I started doing those, I got a call from a unit publicist asking me to ghost write her press kit. That happened with a couple of publicists, and I never got credit, but I did the writing.

I then got a call for Clement Virgo’s film Love Come Down, which was Deborah Cox’s film debut with Larenz Tate. It was a Thursday night, and they said, ‘we know you’ve never done unit publicity and we appreciate you coming in, but we’re going to go with another unit publicist.’ I completely understood, and got on a plane to go down to L.A. for another junket. So I’m sitting at the pool at the Four Seasons, waiting on the waiter to bring a drink and frozen grapes over, and I get a phone call saying that the publicist they were going to hire said it wasn’t enough money. They wanted me on set on Monday morning. So I did the appropriate pause and stretch, looked around, and said ‘Yep, I can be on set on Monday. Just send me a call sheet!’ [laughs] And that was it! It was a Kodak moment. The irony was that it was four weeks of work, where they were paying $5,000, and it wasn’t enough money for that other publicist, but for a journalist? $5,000 for four weeks of work in 1999 was just fine by me! The first thing I did when I got my paycheck was go out and buy a pair of leather pants!

I didn’t get another job as a unit publicist for a year until the film Picture Claire, starring Gina Gershon, Juliette Lewis, and Mickey Rourke. From that time on, until right now, I have never stopped working.

TTVJ: You still work in film a lot and cover many of the festivals as well, but this is a TV-focused series. Can you explain exactly what a unit publicist does for a TV series?

CA: The interesting thing about TV is that you get to develop remarkable relationships with the cast and crew. You can go in way deeper, in terms of developing stories, than you ever can with a film. The networks let unit publicists come up with all sorts of ideas, and as long as they are keeping with what they want, they approve it and let you do a lot of cool stuff on set. It is the second Golden Age of television and working as a unit publicist is a deeply cool thing. The networks make that possible.

With Daniel Petronijevic on the set of American Pie: Beta House. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Amsden.
With Daniel Petronijevic on the set of American Pie: Beta House. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Amsden.

TTVJ: What are your responsibilities then on those series that hire you?

CA: We oversee press on the set. We oversee the stills, and that means choosing the right photographer for the show. Temperament means everything. I would not let any old person come and shoot on Baroness. It has to be people who have the right temperament for that show because it can go south pretty fast if you have someone who is opposite temperament than those performing. I then select stills that get used for social media and promotion. You need to find the right stills days to bring the photographer on. You have to be able to tell the story and capture things like the incredible sets. Fans care about the set and the costumes. The amount of work that goes into costumes is just astonishing and so you want that captured in the stills. That’s what helps sell the show.

I also have to oversee the gallery shoots. Sometimes they let me come up with the gallery shoot concepts and that’s really fun. I also organize the EPK [electronic press kit]. In doing that, and it’s something I’m unusual in doing, is that it’s not the job of the unit publicist to conduct the interviews with the cast. But all those years I was a journalist means I’ve done thousands of interviews. So it makes sense for me to interview the cast for the shows because they know me better than someone being brought in for the day. The one exception to that is Baroness von Sketch. The person who does the interviews there has been working with the team since the beginning. There’s no way I can do better and am happy to step aside.

I also write the press notes. They have to be written for journalists, and the good journalists have actually watched the episodes before they interview the cast. Some of them don’t, and therefore, I have to make sure that what I write in the press notes is helpful enough that if they’ve not watched, they can still do a decent interview. Having been a journalist, I know what to give them. Then you also have a worst-case scenario, that’s a journalist that hasn’t watched the episodes and just got the assignment dropped on them, and the notes have to be written so even they have enough information to do a respectable interview. A bonus is, for someone who knows the show, the characters, and has watched the episodes in advance, I bury leads in there that a knowledgeable journalist will pick up on and have their curiosity piqued. They will know where to go for the interview and where there will be a fruitful answer. Some shows don’t have press notes, though. For Killjoys, it was only character description, synopsis, bios, and episodic synopsis. No press notes at all. They were really counting on journalists to know their stuff.

The only thing I get involved in more on TV shows is the press days. I get to design those, and that’s an active equivalent of writing a press kit. For instance on Killjoys, we had press come into wardrobe and Trysha Bakker [costume designer] went over the evolution of Season 5’s The Lady (Alanna Bale). They weren’t going to do that and I really pressed them. So in lieu of writing a press book for a series, designing the press day is basically the equivalent.

TTVJ: With shows like Lost Girl, Orphan Black, and Killjoys where you have very engaged fandoms who follow the show closely, does that affect your job at all?

CA: I have to make sure that the photography that we get is more comprehensive and detailed. Standard still photography is duplicating what main unit camera is getting, but when you have a really intense fanbase, they care a lot about the behind-the-scenes stuff. They care about the details in the show because genre journalists, of all the journalists, are the best informed and care more about process. Genre fans care more about the comprehensive detail of what goes into the show. They love every last tiny little bit. I have to make sure that the stills guys get all of that. The big stuff is used primarily by the networks, the 15 or 20 that tell the story of the episode, but all the other is then used by social media. I can’t go back and get it once the show is wrapped, so for the fans, I have to make sure we capture as much as possible.

The other thing is that when the press comes on set, depending on what outlet they are with, that affects what I give them access to. The general mainstream press are more interested in the celebrity quotient. The genre press wants the details.

TTVJ: In a lot of other positions BTS, there’s still a pretty big gender gap, but what’s that like for unit publicists. It seems like this is a position that seems to have a lot of women working it?

CA: Traditionally, the role of the unit publicist has gone to women. There have been men, possibly more in the past than now, but currently of the 20+ publicists that are union members, only three of them are men. I have nothing to verify this, but I’ve always been of the belief that men have never seen themselves as publicists, or viewed it with the necessary respect.

With Orlando Jones on the set of Madiba. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Amsden.
With Orlando Jones on the set of Madiba. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Amsden.

TTVJ: What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your job, especially when working for Canadian TV shows that maybe don’t have the biggest budgets?

CA: The size of the budget has zero impact on the efficacy of my work. The success of unit publicity, for me, is based on the number of discrete ideas, tailored to the specific project, that I can generate to sell that project. Ideas are free. Every project is completely and utterly unique — the story, the cast, the locations, the crew — are all absolutely unique. That combination is where the ideas come from, and that’s what I sell to the press. The press, whether they like it or not, then decides if they want to write about it or not. I have to make the project as appealing as possible to a journalist. If I can get your interest, then you’ll write about it, and if you write about it then I’ll have done my job.

TTVJ: You’ve worked on so many interesting projects. Are there any in particular that really stand out for you? Ones you’re most proud of?

CA: Slings and Arrows pops up as a screaming highlight and astonishing to work on. The first season of Orphan Black was legendary because nobody knew what was coming at them. I had to write an abbreviated history of cloning so that journalists would actually know what they were looking at. Cloning has been around for over a century and the significance of it on the show was great. There was a TV miniseries, Hitler: The Rise of Evil, that ran 2002-2003, and I was in the Czech Republic for two months with Robert Carlyle, Liev Schreiber, Julianna Margulies, Peter O’Toole, and Peter Stormare. That was a standout project.

Lost Girl was one of those all-enveloping experiences. Producer Vanessa Piazza was really instrumental in making it wonderful. The cast, from start to finish, was just adorable to work with. I really loved that show.

An obvious big one too was Killjoys, and that was just a big family. There’s something about hearing english, as spoken through Michelle Lovretta, that when you’ve not heard if a few months and get to hear it again, it hits you with a wave of nostalgia where you’re just glad you’re back. Emails from Michelle, every single one of them, need to be printed and framed.

This list would not be complete without mentioning Baroness von Sketch. It’s a crowning achievement for me to be working on it.

TTVJ: In addition to your publicity duties, you’re also co-chair of the CAFTCAD Awards. How did those come into being and what’s your role there?

CA: I have a background in dress design, having ran a small company back in the late ‘80s / early ‘90s, and have always had an interest in design and wardrobe. I noticed that on all the shows I worked on, no one was paying attention to the wardrobe department in the way that I felt they ought to. I made it a point on every one of my shows to direct the press’s attention to costume.

I did some work with CAFTCAD a few years back and they were in an uphill battle to get recognition. I got to be friends with Joanna Syrokomla [President & Co-Chair], and we always had this idea in the background. Then 18 months before the first event, which was held in February 2019, we decided that we were just going to do it. We made that decision and worked through the process until ultimately, everyone was on board and it worked.

The lovely thing was that people who resisted the idea of the CAFTCAD Awards in the beginning, unilaterally on the night of, came up to us and said it was a good idea. The wonderful thing is, in 50 years after I’m dead, this is going to keep going and matter. Canadian costume designers have been working under the radar for decades. They are so good and verifiably world class. They consistently work without budgets that other designers get and turn out stuff that is equally good, if not better. It has been such a privilege to work on this.

 

Thoughts? Share them below!