Spain’s global hit series ‘Money Heist’ reaches end

Netflix will on Friday release the final five episodes of "La Casa de Papel" (Money Heist), the most in-demand TV series in the world currently and one which blew open the door for other non-English language series on streaming services.

money heist season 5 finale
"Money Heist" has been the most in-demand series globally across all platforms this autumn, according to Parrot Analytics. Poster: Netflix

Created by Spain’s private Antena 3 network, the thriller about a gang of thieves and their elaborate heists became Netflix’s most-watched series not in English after it picked up the show in December 2017.

The fate of the robber characters, all of whom have code names from cities around the world, even hooked audiences in the United States, which was not then used to dubbed shows.

The New York Times praised the series and its twists and turns as a “joy ride in every sense” while Israel’s Haaretz newspaper called it “seriously riveting”.

The red overalls and Salvador Dali masks sported by the renegade gang members in the series soon became popular around the world at costume parties and street protests.

“This is the first non-English language series to become a global phenomenon,” said Elena Neira, a professor of communication sciences at the Open University of Catalonia.

Thanks in part to the success of the show, Netflix and its competitors “realised that they did not need to produce everything in the United States” to get a global audience, she added.

Netflix soon scored big with other series not in English, such as French thriller “Lupin” and South Korean dystopian drama series “Squid Game” which this year became the platform’s most-watched series ever.

‘Highly addictive’

While the “Money Heist” screenplay is “not revolutionary”, it tells “a very universal story, of the struggle between good and bad…with messages about the power of women, camaraderie and the need to rebel,” said Neira.

“Lupin” shares many of the show’s features, such as its focus on a thief with “a certain moral” aspect who is “very intelligent,” she added.

“Money Heist” was also lucky to have been picked up by Netflix shortly after the steaming service in January 2016 went live in more than 130 countries, bringing its coverage to almost the entire globe except China.

Netflix’s recommendation algorithm also favours series like “Money Heist” which end with a cliffhanger and are “highly addictive,” said Alberto Nahum Garcia, a professor of audiovisual communication at the University of Navarre.

“There was a kind of alignment of the planets at a time when distribution became even more global,” he added.

Neira said the show benefited as well from the US streaming giant’s willingness to invest heavily to dub and add subtitles to shows in dozens of languages.

The cast of “La Casa de Papel” during the presentation of the season and series finale at the Palacio Vistalegre arena in Madrid on November 30th, 2021. Photo: GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP

Launch pad for Spain

The global success of “Money Heist” has also given Spain’s audiovisual sector a huge boost.

“It placed Spain’s industry in a place where we never dreamed it could be,” the show’s creator Alex Pina said Tuesday at a Madrid news conference to promote the second part of the fifth and final season of the series.

Netflix in 2018 signed a deal with Pina to produce new series and projects exclusively for the streaming giant.

And the following year it opened its first European production centre in Madrid, part of a multi-million euro investment in Spanish language content.

“Money Heist” showed that “stories can be created anywhere in the world and be appreciated everywhere in the world,” Netflix’s vice president of content for Spain and Portugal, Diego Avalos, told AFP.

Several “Money Heist” stars have become regulars on other Netflix shows.

Jaime Lorente, who plays hot-tempered robber Denver, and Miguel Herran who plays young hacker Rio, appear in teen drama Elite, another Spanish global hit.

“Our aim is to be part of the Spanish creative ecosystem. We are investing for the long term,” he added at the opening of the company’s production centre in Madrid.

Five interesting facts to know about Spain’s smash hit Money Heist 

The following are five facts about the show about a gang of thieves who launch elaborate heists:

Sleeper hit

The debut season of the series scored so-so ratings when it was first broadcast on free-to-air Spanish TV station Antena 3.

The first episode aired on May 2, 2017 was seen by four million viewers, but the audience kept dropping and the final episode of the season captured just 1.4 million viewers.

It was only after Netflix bought it, re-edited it, dubbed it and began streaming it in December 2017 that the show took off in Spain and the rest of the world.

A demonstrator wearing the red jumpsuit and Dali mask of the Spanish Netflix hit series La Casa de Papel (Money Heist) during a demonstration in Marseille, France. Photo: Gerard Julien/AFP
A demonstrator wearing the red jumpsuit and Dali mask of the Spanish Netflix hit series La Casa de Papel (Money Heist) during a demonstration in Marseille, France. Photo: Gerard Julien/AFP

 Resistance symbol

The story centres on a group of criminals who break into Spain’s Royal Mint to print their own money, an allegory of revolt against the excesses of capitalism that struck a chord with many viewers a decade after the global financial crisis.

French daily Le Monde called the series “an allegory of rebellion” and the red overalls and Salvador Dali masks worn by the fictional thieves in the series have been donned in protests around the globe.

 Crime inspiration

In December 2020 a group of gunmen carried out a brazen robbery in Criciuma in southern Brazil which appears to have been inspired by the series.

The heavily armed gang burst into a bank, detonated explosives to blast open its safe and then threw bills flying into the air before fleeing.

Bystanders who raced to collect the money hampered the efforts of police to catch the robbers.

City names

In the series all the members of the gang are given code names taken from cities around the world: Tokyo, Rio, Berlin, Moscow, Nairobi, Oslo, Helsinki, Denver, etc.

The show’s creator Alex Pina has said the inspiration came from a staff member of the series who wore a t-shirt with the word Tokyo.

Building swap

Fans of the show who visit Madrid can often be seen taking pictures of themselves in front of the Royal mint where much of the series takes place.

But for security reasons the exterior images of the building were actually shot in front of another institution with similar architecture — the Spanish National Research Council.

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Why do Portuguese people speak much better English than Spaniards?

How is it possible that there can be such a difference between two neighbouring countries so culturally similar, with related Romance languages and tourism-based economies?

Why do Portuguese people speak much better English than Spaniards?

Spain and Portugal are neighbouring countries with a lot in common: the weather, the culture, their Latin-based languages, and both welcome an abundance of English-speaking tourists to their shores every year. Where the two countries differ rather significantly, however, is in their ability to communicate with those holidaymakers.

That is to say: the Portuguese are generally known for speaking very good English, whereas the Spanish are known for not speaking much at all.

Of course, Brits, Irish and Americans (and other tourists who communicate in English abroad, for that matter) should make an effort to pick up a bit of the local lingo when on holiday. But the reality is that many don’t, and rely instead on locals having enough English skills to survive.

But in Spain, besides tourist-focused certain resorts on the coasts and well-educated younger people, the level of English isn’t quite as good.

In fact, the Portuguese are the champions of southern Europe when it comes to English skills, according to rankings from Education First

READ ALSO: 17 hilarious Spanish translations of famous English movie titles

The table was topped by the Dutch, with a score of 70.72, and among the countries considered to have a “very high competence” in English is Portugal, coming in 12th position overall, with 63.14 points. To find Spain, however, you have to go down to 35th place, grouped among countries with “moderate competence”.

Other ranking such as the new English Proficiency Index (EPI) have reached similar conclusions, ranking Portugal in 9th position and Spain in 35th in 2022.

So what are the reasons for the stark differences in English proficiency between both countries?

According to experts, Spaniards’ difficulty learning English can be explained by a number of factors, mainly the size of the country, the number of people who speak Spanish worldwide versus Portuguese and, of course, Spain’s obsession with dubbing every film and TV show.

READ ALSO: Why are the Spanish ‘so bad’ at speaking English?

To dub or not to dub

Rita Queiroz de Barros, head of the research group in English Linguistics at the University of Lisbon, told El Confidencial that “there is an explanation [for the gulf in English language skills] that I think is unequivocal and that is the preference that in Portugal was always opted for subtitles instead of dubbing.”

In Spain, on the other hand, just 4 percent of Spaniards who go to the cinema choose to watch the original version with subtitles. Figures from the Federation of Spanish Cinemas (FECE) from 2015 show how out of the roughly 3,500 large screen cinemas in Spain, barely 200 of them showed international films in their original language.

Much of Spain’s reliance on dubbing as opposed to subtitles has its roots in history, specifically in its dictatorial past. During the early stages of the Franco dictatorship, it was compulsory for all films to be dubbed into Spanish. The Language Defence Law, introduced in 1941, was used to strengthen Spanish nationalism by promoting Castilian Spanish through a mass cultural mode like cinema.

But the post-WWII Portugal of dictator Salazar went the other way. In order to guarantee what was “authentically Portuguese”, a 1948 law banned Portuguese cinema from being dubbed, also as a means of keeping the population in ignorance (in 1940, 52 percent of Portugal’s population didn’t now how to read and write).

Generations of Portuguese children have grown up watching cartoons in English, something that isn’t usually the case in Spain. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP)

However, in practice this had the adverse effect as several generations of Portuguese people grew up watching cartoons and films in English, consolidating their understanding of the language at an early age, improving further as literacy levels increased. Even though Portugal’s dictatorship ended in 1974, it wasn’t until 20 years later that Portuguese people were able to watch the first Hollywood movie dubbed into Portuguese – The Lion King. 

READ ALSO: Why does Spain dub every foreign film and TV series?

As such, Spaniards in the second half of the 20th century have had far less exposure to English compared to the Portuguese. Queiroz de Barros argues the Portuguese tendency to listen to native language films with subtitles “was decisive because it exposed the Portuguese to English much more often and much earlier… [something] absolutely fundamental for this greater availability to learn English.”

Smaller countries punching above their weight

The relative size of the countries also plays a role, as there’s a tendency for smaller countries to perform better in foreign languages.

Antonio Cabrales, a professor at Carlos III University in Madrid who researches English teaching in Spain, told VOA News, that smaller countries are often forced to open up to the rest of the world to a greater extent and therefore must pick up more English — the international business language.

“Smaller countries like Portugal, Greece and Holland are more dependent on exports which means the population will have to travel and need English to conduct business. Larger countries with a bigger domestic market will not have to worry so much about this.”

Spanish speakers worldwide

Equally, the number of Spanish speakers in the world might also play a role. In fact, in this sense Spaniards could be guilty of the same (admittedly lazy) logic as many native English speakers: if millions of other people also speak my mother tongue, why would I bother learning another?

Spanish is the fourth most-spoken language in the world after English, Mandarin and Hindi. Almost 600 million people speak Spanish across the globe, according to a report published the Cervantes Institute, and it is the main language of an entire continent.

Portuguese, on the other hand, has around 230 million speakers and is only spoken in Portugal, Brazil, and several other smaller countries like Angola and Mozambique.

Perhaps there is something to this. If we consider other countries renowned for having high levels of English, say Sweden, Denmark, Holland or Iceland, all are relatively small countries with languages not widely spoken abroad. Like the Portuguese, these countries have more incentive to learn English – the lingua franca of the international community.

READ ALSO: And the Spanish leader with the best English is…?