PARIS — “Versailles,” the lush and sultry French period drama from Simon Mirren (“Criminal Minds”) and David Wolstencroft (“Spooks”) about King Louis XIV, has become the most-watched telecast to date on Ovation TV in the U.S.
Ovation TV, the arts-focus cabler, rolled out the first two episodes of the show at 10 p.m. on Oct. 1. The premiere pulled in a total combined audience of 557K viewers, and tripled the network’s average prime time audience in the adults 25 to 54 category, according to Nielsen. It marked the network’s highest-rated drama premiere.
The cable network did not rely solely on positive word-of-mouth from Europe to make it happen: They flew in key cast members — George Blagden (who plays the king), Alexander Vlahos and Noémie Schmidt — along with co-creators/exec producers Mirren and Wolstencroft to participate in a creative promotional tour across the East Coast. The one-week campaign included social/digital support and live events in Washington and New York, which fueled an increase in demand for the show. According to Parrot Analytics, which tracks engagement across a variety of online platforms, popularity grew steadily the week before premiere, and was 3.3 times higher on September 30, the day before the premiere. Additionally, there was a 1,300% rise in social-media mentions of “Versailles” in the week leading up to the launch.
Budgeted at 27 million euros ($30 million) and shot on location at the real Palace of Versailles outside Paris, the series was commissioned by French pay-TV company Canal Plus. It is the company’s second-most-watched original show, after “The Tunnel,” and has also aired on BBC Two in Britain.
In the U.S., where it will next bow on Netflix, “Versailles” required a healthy amount of promotion to entice American viewers who might not be familiar with this chapter of French history, which depicts the rise to power of Louis XIV, known as the most influential of all French kings.
Targeting upscale, influential and Francophile demos, Ovation TV hosted a premiere screening and panel discussion for “Versailles” at the French Embassy in Washington attended by 300 guests, including the show’s actors and producers, U.S. government officials, diplomats, and journalists.
Other high-profile events sponsored by Ovation in New York included a multi-course French dinner and a live performance by Lisa Zane at Bagatelle, a cocktail party and modern ballet performance at Beautique, and a masquerade party at The Box with a performance by the cast of “Queen of the Night.”
Produced by France’s Capa Drama (“Braquo”), Zodiak Media and Canada’s Incendo, “Versailles” initially raised eyebrows in France owing to the fact that it was shot in English, with British actors playing French royalty. But critics and audiences generally responded favorably. A special screening of the series at the Palace of Versailles, hosted by the International Emmy Awards in April, drew French President Francois Hollande.
Shooting “Versailles” in English was a strategic decision to increase its international sales potential. The series has so far been sold by Zodiak Rights in 135 territories, and the value of those deals was reportedly higher than those inked for popular French-language shows such as “The Returned.”
Although it was created by a pair of Hollywood-based British showrunners and starred Brits, the series owes its French touch to its grand French shooting locations; its French director, Jalil Lespert (“Yves Saint Laurent”); and a French key crew, including set designer Katia Wyszkop (“Farewell, My Queen”) and costume designer Madeline Fontaine (“Jackie,” “Yves Saint Laurent”).
With a theme song by French electro band M83series, a contemporary mise-en-scene, and steamy sex scenes, “Versailles” is part of Canal Plus’ effort to take a different, more rock-and-roll approach to period drama, a genre it has not emphasized in the past.
Mirren started working on the series before bringing in Wolstencroft, whom he had met on “Spooks” and who is a history buff with extensive knowledge of Louis XIV court. The series, however, is heavily fictionalized, according to Wolstencroft, who admitted that more than half of it was made up.
Drawing on their experience in procedural drama, Mirren and Wolstencroft gave the show a political/psychological thriller undertone, building the first season’s intrigue around the Sun King’s ambivalent relationship with his brother, Philippe, as well as conspiracies threatening Louis XIV and his epic journey to build the Palace of Versailles in order to control his enemies.
Mathieu de Vinha, scientific director of research at the palace, served as an advisor on the show and counseled Blagden and Vlahos on their depictions of Louis XIV and his brother.
Mirren and Wolstencroft said they were currently writing the outlines of Season 3, which is currently in development. If greenlit by Canal Plus, the third season will start shooting in the spring. Season 2, which has yet to be acquired by Ovation TV, will start airing on Canal Plus on June 1.