China Box Office: 'Sherlock' Braves 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

Sherlock China Poster P
SMG Pictures

The 90-minute holiday special — based on the cult British TV series — is getting a wide theatrical release in China a few days before J.J. Abrams' juggernaut descends on the market.

The Chinese film market is staging a last-minute showdown next week: Sherlock vs. Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

As BBC Worldwide previously announced, Sherlock: The Abominable Bride, the upcoming 90-minute holiday special of the cult British TV series, will soon be hitting the big screen in markets around the world. But while most territories are planning a limited engagement — screening plans in the U.S. entail two showings in 500 theaters on Jan. 5 and Jan. 6 — China is planning something much bigger.

The Sherlock special sees Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman reprise their roles as Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson in a one-off episode set in Victorian London in 1895.

Shanghai-based SMG Pictures is planning to release the special for an extended run in all cinemas across China beginning on Jan. 4. The release schedule will place Cumberbatch & Co. in the direct path of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which opens in China — after much anticipation — on Jan. 9.

Disney has been aggressively marketing Star Wars in China, as the franchise has a surprisingly short history there, but needs to do big business to continue smashing international box-office records while building a Chinese audience for the many future films planned for the franchise. Most analysts are confident that the studio's myriad marketing efforts — including a Stormtrooper takeover of the Great Wall and the hiring of a Chinese pop star as an "honorary Jedi" — are indeed making an impact.

But hopes are high for Sherlock, too. The show has a massive following in China, where even the People's Daily, the official news organ of the Communist Party, has praised the show for its "tense plot, bizarre story, exquisite production, excellent performances."

In 2014, episodes from the third season of the hit BBC show were streamed by China's leading video service, Youku Tudou, before they aired anywhere else outside Britain. Youku says the Chinese audience for the show has expanded rapidly each season. Season one attracted some 67.3 million cumulative views over the service's platforms. Season three hit 122 million views. And a teenage Cumberbatch look-alike briefly became an Internet sensation in China.

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride will be the first English-language movie to be released in China following the country's annual December blackout on foreign film imports (Point Break was the last foreign title to open in the country on Dec. 4, after which Chinese regulators kept Hollywood and other foreign fare out to give local titles an uncontested run during the lucrative holiday period).

Ningqi Jiang, a spokesperson for SMG Pictures, says she believes there is plenty of room in the booming China market, now the world's second largest, for both pictures to thrive. 

"Sherlock has a very different target audience in China — they are younger, more devoted fans and frequent moviegoers," Jiang says, adding, "The two movies are so different and China's market is big enough for two English-language movies."

Force Awakens and Sherlock will be the only foreign films screening in China until Solace, starring Colin Farrell and Anthony Hopkins opens on Jan. 14, followed by Vin Diesel's The Last Witch Hunter on Jan. 15 and The Walk on Jan. 22.