New project is high-end historical series 'Versailles'

How does a French news agency move from hard-nosed reporting to producing “Versailles,” a high-budget, English-language historical series?

Ask veteran journalist Herve Chabalier, who has turned the Chabalier Associated Press Agency (Capa) he founded in 1989 into a production powerhouse.

Capa broke the mold of French TV mags in the 1990s with programs including “24 heures,” which treated political and social issues with a storytelling quality and visual style that’s become the company’s trademark.

“At Capa we don’t just zoom in, we get even closer to the subjects,” says 64-year-old Chabalier. “We tell the stories from within.”

French-born Chabalier said he developed a strong political conscience while growing up in Spain under dictator Gen. Francisco Franco’s regime and in Africa during the decolonization.

In his 20s, Chabalier became one of the founders of the revolutionary communist youth movement and led student protests in 1968 while attending a Parisian journalism school.

He became an investigative journalist for various print publications focusing on topics such as abortion, drug addiction, sexual freedom and racism.

In the 1980s Chabalier switched to TV journalism, briefly working as exec editor of news and mags for French pubcaster France Televisions, as well as directing and producing TV docs, including 1981′s Emmy Award-winning “Charters to Hell,” which exposed a drug ring in Thailand.

He founded Capa with a mere 40,000 francs ($7,500) and one staffer, his former assistant at France Television. Its reputation grew rapidly and it now employs 250 reporters.

It was the dramatic stories unspooling behind the news that tipped Chabalier into docu-drama.

Chabalier said he was inspired by the Waco cult massacre in Texas in 1993, which was extensively covered by the media and later turned into a docu-drama for ABC.

“I saw how journalists were working hand-in-hand with screenwriters feeding them details on the investigation,” Chabalier says.

That sparked Capa’s first foray into fiction, “Facteur VIII,” a 1995 telepic about France’s HIV-tainted blood scandal that aired on Canal Plus and sparked controversy within Gaul’s political arena and beyond.

“We used our newsroom to do the research on ‘Facteur VIII,’ which gave us a strong basis for scripts,” he says.

Headed by Claude Chelli, Capa Drama continued that formula with other docu-dramas including “Reporters,” the only French series set in the journalism world based on real-life investigations.

Capa now produces more than 130 hours of TV mags and docus each year and has become a key provider of top-rated original series for pay TV platform Canal Plus.

These series include “L’Ecole du pouvoir” centering on the college years of the leaders of the Socialist Party, or more recently “Braquo,” Olivier Marchal’s raw skein about corruption within a police gang-repression unit.

“We share with Capa the same ideals: We both think television should challenge, provoke as well entertain audiences with out-of-the-box programming,” says Fabrice de la Patelliere, topper of Canal Plus’ fiction division.

Now Chabalier is ready to step up Capa’s game even more.

In February, he sold 60% of his shares in Capa to Fabrice Larue Capital Partners, a holding that has an investment capacity of $246 million.

“Capa’s always made money but we were limited with $55.4 million of annual revenues,” Chabalier says. “This partnership with Fabrice Larue allows us to undertake bigger developments.”

Chabalier has retained a 17.5% share, Canal Plus has 12.5%, while the remaining 10.5% is split among 35 managers of the company.

It is this cash infusion that is allowing Capa to produce “Versailles,” which will lense in the French castle. Series will center on Louis XIV’s ambivalent relationship with his younger brother and turn on the daily life of the Sun King’s court staff.

Canal Plus is co-developing the project, which has an estimated budget of $25 million. Its scale is similar to Canal Plus’ other high-profile, international series like “The Borgias” or “The Oligarchs.”

Adds Chabalier, “I’ve always said that behind every project there should be 80% of editorial and 20% of fun but ‘Versailles’ will be pure fun.”

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