International heist dramas are suddenly Netflix’s biggest hits

Eyeing an opportunity.
Eyeing an opportunity.
Image: Netflix
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Two of Netflix’s three most popular original series ever are heist dramas. And neither of them are in English.

Lupin, a French series starring Omar Sy as a gentleman thief, is projected to reach 70 million views in its first month of release, Netflix said Jan. 19. That would make it Netflix’s second most-watched show of all time, behind only the fantasy series The Witcher. (The company counts any household that watches at least two minutes of a series as a “view.”)

The show follows Sy as Assane Diop, the son of a Senegalese immigrant, who takes up a life as a thief and Bond-esque saboteur in order to exact revenge on the wealthy family responsible for his father’s death. In the first episode, Diop hatches an elaborate plot to steal a necklace that belonged to Marie Antoinette from the Louvre—and the heists only get more innovative from there.

As part of Netflix’s strategy to win over France’s cultural elite with local content, Lupin was only ever designed to be successful in France. But it’s clear the series has truly widespread appeal beyond France’s borders. Netflix only has about 9 million subscribers in France—meaning at least 87% of Lupin‘s viewers are from other countries.

In a letter to shareholders (pdf) this week, Netflix admitted the success of Lupin—and of other recent non-English shows—was better than what the company anticipated.

“While designed to be very impactful in the home country, we see many cases of our local originals traveling more broadly,” Netflix said. “For example, Lupin, an adrenalin-filled French language heist series released in early January, has hit #2 in our US Top 10 list and ranked #1 in dozens of other countries including Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland, Vietnam, the Philippines and many more.”

Lupin followed in the footsteps of Money Heist, Netflix’s other heist series in a language besides English that’s become a global phenomenon. The Spanish series, about a group of thieves who plan to rob the Royal Mint of Spain in Madrid (and later the country’s central bank), debuted in 2017.

Money Heist (titled La Casa de Papel in Spanish, or “The Paper House”) was immediately popular, but its fourth season, which premiered last year, was watched by a whopping 65 million Netflix subscribers. The next most popular Netflix international series is Barbarians, a German show with only 37 million viewers.

Shows and movies about heists have always been a welcome diversion for audiences, but this type of global success for the genre may suggest there is something about the modern era that makes viewers relish seeing wealthy people and institutions receive their comeuppance.

Money Heist, for instance, plainly explores anti-capitalist themes, as its band of thieves assume a Robin Hood-like role to disrupt the seat of economic power in Spain. In Lupin, Diop uses his skills specifically to avenge his working-class, immigrant father at the expense of a rich and powerful French dynasty.

The heist genre, when done well, can also be more suspenseful and engaging than the average thriller—perhaps helping Netflix subscribers (mainly American audiences) get past the small barrier of subtitles. With two bona fide hits in the genre already, expect Netflix to make more of Money Heist, more of Lupin, and more shows from other countries that remind subscribers of the two they already love.