For good or ill, the fact there’s a Jem and the Holograms movie is kind of thanks to Justin Bieber.

Back in 2007, the now infamous singer was discovered on YouTube and over the next few years, Bieber became a big star. Then, in 2011, director Jon M. Chu made a movie about him called Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, which featured social media and real fans in a prominent role. The idea of YouTube fame and social media quickly got melded with a pitch Chu made almost a decade before—and, this week, we’re getting Jem and the Holograms, which mixes all of it.

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“When I was working on Never Say Never, we were integrating YouTube videos, interviews and social media stuff and we thought, ‘Oh this is actually really cool, we should use this to tell another story, a fictional story of a character,’” Chu, who directed Jem, told io9.

But what fictional character to tackle? Several years prior, Chu had travelled to Hasbro Headquarters in Rhode Island to pitch a movie of Jem and the Holograms. It was a franchise near and dear to his heart, having watched the cartoon with his sisters growing up and sneakily played with the toys, and he felt it was ready for a movie adaptation. At the time, he was wrong.

“We pitched it to Hasbro and Universal and it was really fun. It was just really big. It was insane” said Chu. “What was hard was just sort of, ‘How do you make it into a live-action movie?’ It’s a tough thing to sell to an audience. ‘How do you convince people that there’s holograms and an identity, and she has to be dressing as two identities, but it’s in two different places, cause in the cartoon they kind of looked the same, but nobody recognizes her. So, what have you got?”

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Back then, Chu had nothing. The project went nowhere. But then Justin Bieber happened, Never Say Never happened, and a lightbulb went off.

“It wasn’t until then that we really started thinking, ‘Well actually, maybe we’re focusing on the wrong theme,’” Chu said. “We’re focusing on “Jem and the Holograms,” but we really need to bridge this gap, to bring in the audience, to make a character we believe we could bring into that world, and we start with [Jem’s true identity] Jerrica.”

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Quickly, a new idea began forming for Jem. A story about a girl struggling with her true identity, while her secret identity starts to become famous. But we’ve seen so many movies about people becoming famous, Chu decided that couldn’t be the focus.

“It was less about her journey to stage, but that was the hard part for me,” Chu explained. “We have to get her famous, but I don’t want this movie to be about her being famous. The whole idea about fame is it’s the illusion, it is a hologram. In a way. And so it was just Jerrica, coming to grips with her different identities”

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To help bring this vision to the big screen, Chu recruited a few other identities of his own. He enlisted the aid of Scooter Braun, Bieber’s manager, as well as mega-producer Jason Blum. Once everything was set, the trio decided to make a huge online splash, by announcing the movie out of the blue and asking for Jem fans to send in videos to be used in the movie.

The campaign was a rousing success (several people were cast, costumes were used, posters, music, more on that in a bit) but it was also met with a huge amount of criticism. Why were these three men the face of such a famous girl-power franchise? And where was series creator Christy Marx, who publicly admitted that she had no idea Hasbro had okayed a movie?

“It was definitely a surprise to me, because I didn’t think [Jem] was exclusively for women in the first place,” Chu said. “We didn’t have some preconceived notions that we needed to do this as men for women, or something. I guess I just didn’t understand that [reaction], and most people complained that women shouldn’t be objectified, there should be more female-empowered movies. And yet, that’s what we’re doing. And we’re being attacked for it. So that, to me, was a little bit strange, but you know, it’s the internet. That’s what it is. And we took that challenge.”

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Chu quickly contacted Marx and asked for her blessing, which she gave. She also gave him some advice on the movie. “She said, ‘The one thing I would have focused on in the series was the relationship, the sisterhood between the girls’” Chu explained. “‘Like, if you can do that, that’s huge.’”

Those relationships between the sisters became a mantra for the film and is weaved throughout. However, arguably, it’s not the most prominent connection in Jem and the Holograms. That distinction goes to the relationship between the character and its fans. A good chunk of the movie is composed of those aforementioned YouTube videos, which not only become a greek chorus for the movie, but influence the direction of the plot, the music in the score and more.

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“That’s what I love about this group of young people out there, is they are makers,” Chu said. “They create things and they pick up opportunities so we knew the movie could work without it, but, that wasn’t the point of the movie. The point of the movie was to make a movie that was built for this generation of people, to be as of the time as the music videos were of the ‘80s, when Jem came around, so we wanted to make sure we reflected whatever that was of this time.”

And while Jem’s 2015 story as a young person plucked off YouTube and shot to super stardom might sound a lot like the singer whose director and manager worked on the movie, Chu does not, himself, link the film to Bieber.

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“I wasn’t specifically thinking Justin, because in my mind, Justin is a very unique case,” Chu said. “To me, it was more of a normal girl getting great fame and how she goes through with it with her sisters.”

Jem and the Holograms opens October 23.

Image Credit: Top photos, Universal Pictures. Bottom, Stew Milne/AP Images for Hasbro

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(From left to right writer Ryan Landels, Hayley Kiyoko, Aurora Perrineau, producer and CEO of Hasbro Brian Goldner, Aubrey Peeples, Stefanie Scott, Ryan Guzman, director and producer Jon Chu, and producer Stephen Davis)


Contact the author at germain@io9.com.

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