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Not even an American streaming service giant could have predicted that a Spanish series about a criminal mastermind and his antiauthoritarian bank robbers in their signature Salvador Dalí masks and red jumpsuits would become a global success.
"La Casa de Papel" (known as "Money Heist" in the U.S.), which premiered in 2017 on Spain's Antena 3 before Netflix acquired the show later that year, has become one of the streaming service's most popular non-English series.
"We didn’t even create the show for Netflix, so it was completely surprising," the show’s creator Álex Pina tells USA TODAY, adding that the level of success it reached "happens only once in a lifetime, and it just so happened to us."
As the TV business changes and viewers' habits change with it, several other Netflix series made in local languages have won loyal fans around the world. The latest sensation: South Korean series "Squid Game," in which children's contests are played with deadly stakes. From the Spanish "Money Heist" and "Elite" to France's "Lupin" to "Unorthodox" – a German series largely in Yiddish about a Jewish woman who flees Brooklyn for Berlin – the language barriers have fallen elsewhere, too. Mexico's "Narcos" (returning Nov. 5) and "Who Killed Sara?" are among other shows that have enticed more viewers to binge-watch in different languages.
Netflix’s global head of TV, Bela Bajaria, says the streaming service’s "goal for all of our global members is to make local language shows that are authentic to the vision, the country and the language."
Pina says it's interesting to see international shows reach audiences they never have before.
"It was complicated to think we were going to be able to play the game with larger production companies in North America and for us, it was an absolute miracle," he says.
Director and executive producer Jesús Colmenar adds that for years, before "Money Heist," he and his colleagues were "fighting within the Spanish television industry to create a project that would be both exportable and global."
And as Netflix has focused on expanding to new territories overseas to create original programming, the heist crime drama became one of those marketable local-language shows to add to their catalog. Originally, "Money Heist" was intended as a limited series, but since Netflix acquired global streaming rights in late 2017, it has produced three more seasons – with the first half of the fifth and final season out this month, and concluding Dec. 3.
"Money Heist" may be Netflix's buzziest non-English original at the moment, but "Lupin" – a retelling of the classic French story inspired by "gentleman burglar" Arsène Lupin – is "not just our most popular local-language original, it's the most popular show we've launched on Netflix so far in 2021," Bajaria said last month.
For Bajaria, that authenticity comes by "finding a vision" and "making that show and that story on the ground with local talent."
Netflix has now made shows in 40 different countries, subtitled those shows in 37 languages and dubbed them in 34, reflecting the streaming service's expansion around the world.
Bajaria, who oversees content for more than 200 million subscribers in 190-plus countries and territories, says 65 million of those subscribers watched at least a few minutes of the fourth season of "Money Heist" in the first four weeks of its April 2020 release, during the pandemic, and the show made its overall top 10 list in 51 countries, including Vietnam, India and Portugal, as it did in the U.S. when the first half of the final season arrived this month.
Netflix is selective in sharing metrics on viewing of specific shows. But since 2019, it says non-English language viewing in the U.S. is up 71%, and claims 97% of U.S. members watched at least one non-English show in the last year.
Pina believes "Money Heist" has demonstrated it can "reach Asia, Korea, Arabia, the U.S. and Latin America – that's the clearest demonstration for Netflix to know they need to take a chance on many types of shows and I think, like us, Netflix didn't anticipate this level of success."
From the start, producers sought to create a show that would be exportable, "able to work on a global level but still stay true to Spain’s idiosyncrasies, stay true to our roots, and the ways in which we tell our stories," Colmenar says.
'Lupin,' 'Elite,' 'Unorthodox' lead Netflix's most popular overseas titles
Bajaria also notes there's no way to know which types of local-language shows or different genres are going to be the next "Lupin" or "Money Heist," which took home the International Emmy Award for best drama series in 2018.
"There's no common thread," Bajaria explains. "What we've definitely seen is that if it's great storytelling that is authentically told with a strong vision and the show is great, then it will find an audience."
Most recently, Netflix has seen a handful of shows reach global success, including Spain's "Elite," Mexico's "Who Killed Sara" and "Dark Desire," Germany's "Barbarian," and "Unorthodox," an Israeli series mostly in Yiddish.
"They've been very different, from lots of different genres and I really feel like the shows that have traveled are just coming from great creators, and it really has been about having this local impact," Bajaria says.
"I don’t think you can ever manufacture it in a strategic way, like 'what will work and what won’t?' It’s just really great storytelling. And so I think we've seen if it's a really strong vision and a great show, it will travel and people will find it all over the world."
Netflix makes it easier for English-speaking viewers to watch series in other languages
Bajaria says the streaming service has made it "easier than ever to overcome" what Oscar-winning Korean film "Parasite" director Bong Joon Ho called "the one-inch barrier of subtitles."
Non-English speakers have watched Hollywood TV and films dubbed or with subtitles, but now the roles are reversing. Pina and Colmenar didn't stress over whether English-speaking viewers would struggle to grasp the storylines in "Money Heist."
"All the basics of the story will be understood,” Colmenar says. "Perhaps at some point there may be a Spanish expression that is difficult to translate, but in some way that’s what we have always lived with. We have always enjoyed American films and their stories, knowing that it was a different culture.”
Netflix’s "seamless" technology has also made it easier for English-speaking viewers to discover different genres – including everything from anime ("Demon Slayer," "Naruto") to Korean dramas ("Crash Landing on You," "Something in the Rain") or Spanish novelas ("La Reina del Sur," "House of Flowers").
Bajaria adds: "You may not be the person that’s going to drive 40 miles to go to an arthouse cinema to see the latest foreign language film, but from your couch, you may click play on 'Money Heist,' once you’ve finished watching 'Ozark,' or 'The Crown,' and right there you have access to this other great show, which happens to be in Spanish. So I think we’ve just made it much easier to give people access to stories from all over the world."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Money Heist,' 'Squid Game': How non-English Netflix shows find fans