Diego Ávalos, Netflix’s VP of original content in Spain, distinctly remembers the encounter that led to his company licensing what would become its most watched non-English-language series, Spanish drama “Money Heist” (“La Casa de Papel”).
The executive’s first in-person meeting with series creator Álex Pina was a dizzying, fateful whirlwind. “He was rushing through this hotel, and he ran up to me and threw a pen drive in my hand and said, ‘You have to watch this — it’s my new show,’ and then he rushed off just as quickly.”
After the frantic rendezvous, Ávalos boarded a plane to Los Angeles and popped the drive into his laptop. When his feet hit the ground in California, he knew his next Spanish acquisition had to be “Money Heist.”
Four years later, Netflix is preparing the global launch of the long-awaited fifth and final part of its hit series, the first half of which airs on the streaming platform on Sept. 3. The finale was originally meant to come out earlier this year, but the COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on the writing process. Pina, stuck at home during the strictest of Spain’s lockdown, recalls, “Lethargy set in, and without the electricity of actually going into work every day, the writing was a struggle.”
The series, co-written by Pina’s longtime collaborator Esther Martínez Lobato, was an entirely new proposal for Spanish TV when it was first aired by local broadcaster Antena 3 in May 2017 as a 15-episode, two-part event series. Mixing elements of thriller, romance, melodrama and, above all, classic heist films, the series follows a group of ragtag misfits who join forces to break into the Spanish mint, where they print and steal millions of euros in authentic, untraceable cash.
Since its arrival in Spain in 2015, Netflix has enjoyed strong relationships with domestic broadcasters, including Antena 3 parent Atresmedia. Often, networks will present in-development projects to the streamer with the possibility of collaborating, as Atresmedia did with its exciting genre-bending mashup from Pina’s Vancouver Media.
“We do great work with our partners in local media here licensing and co-producing, and Atresmedia told us about this show very early on in its development,” remembers Ávalos. “They only had a bible at the time, but it was super exciting, and it looked great.”
But while the initial ratings for “Money Heist” on Antena 3 were strong, as episodes continued airing viewership dropped and the series ended its commissioned run with little fanfare.
“We’d all moved on,” recalls Úrsula Corberó, who plays the series’ main character and often unreliable narrator, Tokyo. “We’d said our goodbyes, shared tears and hugs, and went on to our next projects.”
At the end of the year, however, over the winter holidays, Netflix stepped in and reformatted the series with a plan to launch it internationally. Step one — and the biggest struggle the streamer would face in its renewal endeavor — was getting Pina back on board as writer and showrunner.
“Álex is a super passionate and emotional person, and for him, at that time, the story was closed,” Ávalos explains. “He hates doing the same thing twice, so he was adamant that whatever we were doing had to be different than anything we’d done before.”
The first official approach from Netflix came while Pina was still in France.
“I went to my hotel and got a call from Netflix asking what I thought about Part 3, and I was floored,” says Pina. “I’d never thought about doing a third part, so I told them I needed time to consider it, and I took a full month.”
After those four weeks of consideration, Pina agreed to sign on, and Parts 3 and 4 were ordered in April 2018. “The big, fundamental difference was the removal of boundaries,” says Pina of the move to Netflix. “When you’re writing for Netflix, you can do almost anything.”
According to actor Álvaro Morte, who plays The Professor, the cast quickly learned how to deal with increased expectations. “When we started with Part 3, we knew we had a hit and that we had to do our absolute best, but it was vital that while working we didn’t allow ourselves to be pressured. If we went into Part 3 thinking about the impact it could make, that’s a hard mindset to overcome.”
A key contributor to the series breakout, according to people in the communications department at the University Carlos III of Madrid (UC3M), was how Netflix reformatted the program.
“A real weakness in Spanish broadcast TV is that primetime shows, especially dramas, are very poorly scheduled,” explains UC3M fellow and European TV academic Christopher Meir. “Episodes are often 100 minutes long and sometimes don’t start until 11:30 p.m. No matter how popular the show, they almost always lose momentum.”
When Netflix picked up “Money Heist,” it cut up the series’ original 15-episode run into 22 episodes of around 50 minutes each and, as with most of its series, launched the show’s entire first part at once.
“The way we watch TV is brutally addictive,” explains Pina. “With a show like ours, when you add in advertising and air it only once a week, you lose electricity with the viewer, and the compulsion fades. Streaming allows them to feed that addiction.”
Parts 3 and 4 were filmed simultaneously, and after they dropped in July 2019 and April 2020, the show continued to redefine what non-English-language content could achieve at Netflix. “Money Heist,” along with Germany’s 2017 breakout “Dark,” broke the mold and paved the way for future Netflix standouts such as Spain’s “Élite” and France’s “Lupin,” both of which have set audience records for non-English-
“When Netflix premiered the series, I was in Uruguay celebrating New Year’s Eve with my in-laws,” recalls Corberó of the “Money Heist” debut. “We were on the beach, and some people walked up to me shouting, ‘Tokyo, you’re a goddess!’ I joked with my partner saying, ‘Look, we found the only four people here who have seen the show,’ because in my brain it was inconceivable what was happening.”
Pina had a similar experience. “Just after the series premiered on Netflix, I was at an event in France, and two guys came to me with T-shirts asking for an autograph. That had never happened to me before, not even in Spain,” the writer said, adding, “I think the series marked a turning point — a revolution for the acceptance of international idiosyncrasies at a time when the landscape was dominated by American fiction.”
Morte also has fond memories of Netflix’s success in reconstructing the series: “I’ve heard that people around the world started studying Spanish because of ‘Money Heist,’ just because they wanted to hear our real voices. That’s fucking amazing! You can’t help but be proud of that.”
“Money Heist” was evolving into more than just a hit series though; it was becoming a cultural phenomenon. Red jumpsuits and Dalí masks were everywhere; the World War II-era anti-fascist anthem “Bella Ciao,” sung throughout the series by members of the gang, saw more than a dozen new versions released across Europe, with The Professor
and Berlin’s duet charting in Austria, Germany, Belgium, France and Switzerland.
Celebrities including Mindy Kaling, Stephen King and Brazilian soccer superstar Neymar were effusive in their praise for the show, so much so that the forward for Paris Saint-Germain had a cameo in Part 3.
By mid-2018, “Money Heist” not only ranked as the most-watched non-English-language series on Netflix but one of its most-watched series overall. Now, it looks poised to surpass its own lofty achievements with its final season, although Pina recalls how the pandemic nearly derailed the entire thing.
“When we finished Episode 2, we realized it wasn’t strong enough. It was languid, conservative. So we rewrote Episode 1 and threw out Episode 2, writing each as if they were the season finale, with that kind of nerve and energy. That strategy kept going, and I think that audiences will feel that almost every episode of Part 5 feels like a finale.”
According to Netflix’s brief synopsis, Part 5 will kick off with the gang trapped in the Bank of Spain. Having managed to rescue Lisbon (Itziar Ituño), they will face their darkest hour after losing one of their own. Meanwhile, The Professor has been captured by Sierra (Najwa Nimri) and, for possibly the first time ever, is operating without a plan. With the gang members’ world crashing down around them, the Spanish army arrives, promising to be the most imposing enemy yet.
According to Pina, the finale will be all-out war.
“We studied how to shoot using more extreme methods to create a greater anguish and tension. We built giant sets just to destroy them. We had so much to learn, but that’s the best part of this job,” he remembers fondly.
While “Money Heist” will end with Part 5, nobody involved is willing to immediately dismiss the possibility of revisiting the story someday. Due to the nature of the series’ storytelling, using flashbacks and cutaways to show key narrative details, spinoff possibilities are nearly endless, and any character could come back.
“After Part 5, we’ll see what we do next. But for now, there are no plans for more ‘Money Heist,’” says Pina.
According to Corberó, “When we finished shooting, I chose not to say goodbye to Tokyo. It seemed too heartbreaking, so I decided to take her with me forever, and I never close doors to opportunity. Right now, the healthiest thing for me is to do other work, but that doesn’t mean that in a few years I couldn’t come back.”
For his part, Morte says he’s pleased with how the series ends and believes the audience will be too. And yet, he’s still keeping the door ajar.
“It would be a pleasure to return to The Professor. Anything can happen.”