Let’s try to understand the genetic map of the success of a global phenomenon that has definitively consecrated Netflix as an absolute protagonist in the media industry.
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Recently, the fourth series of La Casa de Papel was broadcasted. It resulted the most popular series in 2019 and the most downloaded series in 2020! Made and produced by Netflix, I believe it represents the most striking example of the disruptive innovative capability in contents of Netflix, now operating in almost 200 countries with 167 million subscribers.
Why has La Casa de Papel been such a huge success?
The plot, the skill of the actors, the narrative plot, are part of the explanation. Maybe it won’t win prizes, but for sure La Casa de Papel makes many crazy because it’s part of what that audience wants. Other series and other movies win prizes but they like less. And at the end of the story, it is the audience (i.e. the market) that defines the success of a product, not the critics!
For those who do not know it or have never seen it, it is a simple story but very lively in its evolution: a group of criminals with nothing to lose, each with a nickname of a city, try to do the robbery of the century (in two very complicated places). Just after the beginning of the first episode of the first season, intertwining triggers between the bandits, their hostages, the policemen and (plot twist!), the crowd, which clearly sides in favour of … (stop to spoilers, now!). In each episode, there are twists and the right mix of action scenes, quiet moments, dramatic passages and funny dialogues.
The series was born by Álex Pina, a former journalist who has become a screenwriter, former author of other series (such as Vis a Vis, also on Netflix), and who founded Vancouver Media in 2016, his film studio. For his first project he decided to tell the story of a robbery, a topic not yet explored in the television series. The series was broadcast on Antena 3, one of the most popular Spanish television channels: the first part of the first season on Tuesday evening, between May and June, while the second part, on Monday, between October and November, with half audience.
However, a good result with 4 million people audience, but nothing of a possible future global phenomenon!
Then, there was Netflix’: first, in July 2017, after Antena 3 had broadcast the first part of the first season, Netflix Spain boradcasts the first part of the series online. Despite the uninspiring results, someone’s intuition prompted Netflix to decide to acquire the rights to broadcast worldwide. To that aim, Netflix changed something: it edited the episodes differently to go from 15 episodes over an hour long, to 22 episodes of 45-50 minutes each. This was the first stroke of genius: there are so many twists in each episode that ending one to keep people glued to the screen has turned out to be a magically perverse game!
But the turning point comes in July 2018, when the series becomes a full-fledged Netflix series with an agreement directly with the author for the realization of a second season together. The third part arrived online all together, as per Netflix tradition, in July 2019, with 24 million viewers watching it in less than a week (source: Netflix).
To explain the success we go from the use of Salvador Dalì’s masks to the use of slogans that are perfect to become memes on the internet; from the use of Spanish elements to the balanced use of international elements (such as the song “Bella Ciao”); from the appearance of ever new problems to solve to changes in alliances and hierarchies among robbers; from the strong psychological typing of the individual robbers to the “professor”, the brilliant mind, the leader of the blows, the soul and the one who holds together very different human categories.
There is no doubt that the series is in some way “anti-system” and exploits a favourable wave linked to different types of protests that happened between 2018 and 2019 in different areas of the world (here, the use of big data of the 164 million Netflix subscribers made the other difference!). The algorithm, that proposed it to a wide number of users to make people talk about it, did the rest.
It will not appeal to many critics, but it is an enjoyable product in the eyes of many. Its success says a lot about Netflix’s success: focusing on local productions to be brought to the global platform, leaving creative freedom to the authors who, however, can benefit from incredible insights from the enormous amount of data available, increasing the series offer to have more probability of another sensational success. Meanwhile, we are waiting for the fifth series which I believe will have a higher success than the fourth in terms of success in part also because of the suspension effect in the end generated by the pandemic!