There has been an awakening... well for quite many years actually. The awakening in question is that people don't go to see movies solely because of a famous actor or actress attached to it anymore. Instead, the focus has shifted more from going to see movies for their starts to going to see movies because of their link to a franchise, their source material, director, the ideas behind them (perhaps even most importantly), critic reviews and so on. Who is acting in them, has become just one of the many factors and not the most important one.
I really like this shift in focus... I mean what is not to like there. People are appreciating all the different aspects of movies more and more. It is a brilliant direction for the world of cinema to move towards.
However, I would like to bring out some what you might call reminders on why going to see a movie based on who is playing in it still has (of course only as a part of other factors!) a useful role and function that can lead to some nice surprises. So, with the introduction and bad opening pun out of the way, let's look into it.
The shift in focus and the reasons behind it
Having a high profile popular actor (Will Smith, Tom Curise, Johnny Depp, Harrison Ford, to name a few form a very long list) are not enough to sell a movie based on their presence alone anymore. That much is clear and has been clear for years. If their name is attached to it, for sure, it can help, but nowadays it is only one of the elements that pulls people towards certain movies. It is probably for the best that way. Mainly because any movie is a massive collaborative effort that needs all the right people in the right places and also for the right reasons (ideas etc.). Therefore, relying on just one element is not the best way to approach it.
Essentially the reasons behind this shift in focus are "no brainers"...
1.) Love for the source material and cinematic universe in general
Very important part in this shift is that a lot of the fans of certain classic franchises, fictional universes and so on have grown up and become established directors, screenwriters, actors and people in the movie industry in general. They have a passion for a certain fictional universe and not just a motivation to have a blockbuster with a big name attached to it.
Projects that are done with more passion translates (among other things) to finding right persons for the roles and not necessarily to most high profile ones. This, along with the fact that fandom as a seperate entity in general has grown exponentially in all aspects, is probably the most clear reason why people see something because they like the fictional universe and the ideas that come along with it and not the star leading it.
2.) The internet
The other main reason or THE reason is well... the internet. The movie fans and audiences in general have gotten a bigger and bigger opportunity to get information about the movies and the process of making them in all of it's aspects. They are more aware of everything that goes into a movie. This means people have a lot more to go by when deciding what movie to see. Thus, creating a situation where we could call directors the movie stars of today (as brilliantly said in a recent "schmoesknow" YouTube discussion).
And of course, thanks to the internet, the movie reviews have emerged as a more and more dominating source on how people choose the movies they go to see. Along with the basic review sites like Rotten Tomatoes, Youtube is full of brilliant reviewers, whose reviews are a form of entertainment in their own right.
To reitterate, people are more interested in the ideas and content of the movies than who is playing in them. All the elements involved in a movie are finally getting the recognition they deserve.
Also, it means that the movie stars themselves need to up their game knowing that their presence alone is not enough to sell a movie anymore, thus capitalizing on their considerable talents that made them movie stars in the first place. In other words, since people are more interested in what is inside (contents) of the movie than what is on the surface (a poster), actors and actresses are motivated to pick more interesting roles and open up their own potential to a bigger extent.
So, it's for the best that the "movie star phenomenon" is on the decline but there is an aspect that (to a certain extent) actually speaks for that phenomenon.
The "Movie star" - a "trusty friend"
First of all, to make it very clear - the idea of going to see something just because it has this or that actor/actress attached to it no matter what the context... yeah that I cannot get behind (of course it is anyones own business in the end anyway so who cares ;) ).
But I think that it definitely has it's role as one important element in making a decision whether to see a movie or not, as long as there are also other aforementioned elements (directors, script, ideas etc.) to back it up. Therefore, an actor leading the movie shouldn't be overlooked as long as you approach it in a logical way.
The thing is, if you look up to someone or admire someone or generally respect their ideas as a person, you might end up doing things and looking into things, that they are attached to in one or another way, you otherwise would have overlooked and find a lot good in them for yourself. It can be the same situation with movie stars or actors and actresses in general.
Even though their motivations for taking a role can vary, they are still the most direct link for us watching a movie (obviously... because they are on screen). So therefore, if you have trust in a certain actor or actress, then you might be willing to give a movie that is not "your thing" a shot.
Internet helps along
Although, on the one hand the internet is, as said before, the biggest reason why going to see a movie because of it's star is not a thing anymore, it can also be a reason why you can still take a certain actor or actress attached to a movie as an important factor in deciding to see a movie or a TV show.
There are simply more ways (interviews, roundtables, behind the scenes footage etc.) for one to get to know how an actor or actress approaches his or her work, what an actor or actress felt about a certain movie they made and generally get an idea of them as professionals and what ideas inspire them to take part in a movie.
Therefore, if there is an actor or actress that has given many interesting interviews and discussions about movies or a certain movie, you are willing to give a movie that might not be your thing a shot. You respect this person and his or hers opinion enough to do it. The same goes for directors as well (in a way even more so), but, as said before, an actor is a more direct link for an audience member.
On a bit of a side note, let me emphasize that I'm not saying that it is a good idea to find out about these actors and actresses personal lives. Absolutely not! I couldn't care less about that and quite frankly, in terms of seeing a movie but also in general, no one should. The focus should be stricltly on how they come across as persons in interviews about their profession, how they talk about the movie and movies they are in and ideas that come along with it.
A few personal examples
I really like the interviews a reporter called Jake Hamilton did for years and of course the classic "Inside Actors Studio" interviews with James Lipton. They are both great at asking very interesting questions and generally making the interview feel very human with the actors.
While watching these interviews, one will see a great conversation going on with an actor. And very often, thanks to that convesration, I would see a movie that I would not have had any interest in and would continue to keep an eye on this or that actor or actress. All of that has lead me to see some interesting films and broaden my taste as a movie fan (also an element, of course, is the actors and actresses previous work).
"Penny Dreadful", "The Matador", "Eternal Sunshine of the spotless mind" are just a few examples from a long list of movies and TV shows that got my attention because of their lead actors.
These all are movies or TV shows I would not have had that much interest and motivation to go into, but since a certain name was attached to them, I did. All of these have changed my taste in movies and motivated me to explore a wider variety of different types of movies and TV shows.
"Penny Dreadful", for exmaple, has been a hugely amazing series that is through and through well acted, directed and written and has so many deep and interesting ideas and themes. But it is also not a monster hit and maybe for a bit acquired taste with all of it's ghotic horror elements. I found this series because I had huge respect for Eva Green and Timothy Dalton, but stayed along for the ride because of the sheer brilliance of all the characters, actors or actresses, story and themes in it.
Same goes for "the Matador" with Pierce Borsnan. This is a stylish and adult (in the best sense of the word) small movie that doesn't try to be too flashy and just relies on style and wit. Many years ago, that kind of movie was not my thing at all. But since I have a lot respect for Pierce Brosnan, I was willing to give it a go.
"Eternal Sunshine of the spotless mind", again, the same thing. I wanted to see the more serious side to Jim Carrey and that curiosity led me to this brilliant little movie, I would probably have otherwise ignored.
To sum up
Let's hope that this awesome trend of going to see movies because of all their elements (ideas, themes, directors, screenwriters, source material, well made reviews on them etc.) continues. Who is acting in them, is just one element and that is how it should be. As said before, movies are these massive collaborative efforts where the puzzle needs to come together perfectly. It is nice to see the "movie star phenomenon" on a decline in that sense.
However, a certain actors or actresses involvement in a movie is still an important factor. When you have trust and respect in an actor or actress (them as professionals and not as celebrities or in their private lives), you might be taken into interesting places that end up having a good effect on you and actually broaden your taste in movies.
Therefore, we can still, to an extent, use famous actors and actresses as "trusty friends" who can lead us to adventures, we would not have even considered ;).