Justin Bieber: Never Say Never hits theaters this weekend, and, God willing, could be the topic of many conversations come Sunday — at least that’s what Paramount, the studio behind the 3-D documentary’s release, is hoping. Paramount has held 20 screenings in 20 markets at the end of January for Christian leaders, some of whom then offered written endorsements, arranged group ticket sales for their fellowship, or requested a copy of the study guide produced for the movie titled “Never Say Never: For Nothing Is Impossible With God.”
Execs recognized that the film’s message of hope and Bieber’s strong Christian beliefs, about which both he and his mother Pattie Mallette have spoken extensively, were an opportunity to reach out to the faith community. The study guide is a collaboration between Bieber’s mother and Allied Faith & Family, an arm of Allied Integrated Marketing. It’s the first time Paramount has worked with Allied to supplement its general publicity, but not the first time the studio has had a faith-based element to a movie campaign. (The studio had faith-based outreach programs for the documentaries Waiting for “Superman” and An Inconvenient Truth and the adaptation of The Kite Runner.) Indeed, marketing to Christian groups became quite popular post-The Passion of the Christ; like secular marketing campaigns, it’s about making sure people who may not think a film has something for them see that it does — like Bieber’s pre-performance ritual that includes a prayer introduced to him by his Jewish manager, or Bieber and his friends saying grace at a pizza parlor.
So how effective will Paramount’s efforts be for this film? The study guide made its way into the inbox of Sean Meade, who serves as the National Network of Youth Ministries‘ national coordinator for middle school groups and also runs an organization called Stuck in the Middle, which holds events for middle school-aged students in the U.S. and Canada and does training for youth pastors. “Big picture, I know a lot of people are planning to use this movie within their ministry,” he tells EW. “I work specifically with middle school students and with youth pastors who focus on that age group, and if you have middle school girls in your group, they’re gonna go see the Justin Bieber movie, and they’re gonna be talking about it, and those themes are something that really resonates with that early adolescent age. Youth pastors want to be talkin’ about this with their kids.”
That said, Meade doesn’t exactly see the guide itself coming in handy with what one would assume would be the target demo. “It starts off with an introduction from Justin’s mom talking about his faith, which is awesome. But then the very first theme is ‘Discerning God’s Plan for Your Life’ and it goes into what I call Christianese, where it’s Christian language that unless you’ve been born and raised in the church, you have no idea what ‘separating the wheat from the chaff’ or ‘the lures of the flesh from the operations of the spirit’ means,” he says. “If I start talking like that to my 8th grade guys group, they’re gonna think I’m crazy.”
But while he thinks the application is “a little cheesy,” he believes the lesson is solid. “Overall, it helps to understand that Justin’s a kid who worked hard and did his best, and you can do those same things and help discern what maybe God wants you to do with your life. You’ve got a kid who’s had, I’m sure, every opportunity to just go crazy and live out any kind of teenage fantasy that he’s ever wanted to, and yet seems to be very grounded and not only just a good kid, but seems to make a lot of wise choices. I watched Diddy last night on [Jimmy Kimmel Live!], and the guy looked teary-eyed talking about Justin and the themes of the movie. And he actually said that Justin had a God-ordained talent. I thought Man, if you’ve got Diddy talking about your God-ordained talent and what a good kid you are, you gotta be doing something right.”
Diddy made a plea to Kimmel’s viewers to see the film as a human success story, one that appeals to all ages and both sexes. “I think it’s definitely a hard sell for young boys,” Meade says. “My home church weekend activity tonight has like 150 junior highers coming together. I threw it out to my 8th grade guys, half joking, ‘Are we gonna go see the Bieber movie tonight after the event?’ They’re just one, so tired of hearing about Bieber from all the girls. But two, I think there’s a macho element of ‘I’m a guy. I can’t go to the Justin Bieber movie.’ Except for the couple of wise ones who’ve figured out that all the girls will be at the Justin Bieber movie, and they’re excited,” Meade says. “But that’s a whole different story.”