LOS ANGELES — There's no set path for a breakout Sundance director.
Some go big. Some stay small. Some get their foot in the studio world and still maintain an independent voice and vision — just look at Ryan Coogler, who won the grand jury prize for "Fruitvale Station" in 2013 and followed it up with "Creed."
But they always have a home at Sundance, and some, even years and much success later, find themselves back at that snowy mountain town again and again.
"Sundance [which opened Thursday and runs through Jan. 31] is a discovery festival but it's also about independent storytellers at any point in their career if they're dong the kind of work that we're all about," said Trevor Groth, Sundance's director of programming.
This year, a host of veterans like Ira Sachs, Kelly Reichardt, Whit Stillman, Kenneth Lonergan and Todd Solondz, are back to debut new works.
Below, these returning greats reflect on their first festival experiences, harrowing train rides, pivotal screenings and life-changing connections.
"Value is a term that I consider all the time as a filmmaker — what is value? Is it economic value? Is it commercial value? Is it personal value?" said Sachs. "Sundance is a space where you can find different answers."
Sachs' Sundance memories precede his filmmaking days. His father lives in Park City, Utah, so he's been attending for over three decades.
"I learned about the possibilities of being an independent filmmaker in the cinemas and lounges of the festival," Sachs said. "The breadth of cinema that I was able to see as a young person really gave me, and continues to give me, the courage to take risks in my own work."
Sachs had a short film there, but it was with his first feature, "The Delta," in 1996 that he really found a home there as a filmmaker.
"Sundance was a kind of birthplace for modern queer cinema, and as a gay person making movies, I felt very welcomed in Utah!"
He's an adviser at the Institute, too. Sachs returns this year with "Little Men," a drama starring Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle.
When Kelly Reichardt's first film, "River of Grass," was accepted in 1994, she couldn't afford a plane ticket from New York, so she and her star and editor Larry Fessenden took the train. The three-day ride turned into a brutal five-day slog when the train froze. Reichardt recalls rolling up to the festival in time, but a bit greasier than she would have liked.
She stayed in a house with Sachs, and met her friend, the late "Still Alice" filmmaker, Richard Glatzer, there, too. She also remembers feeling like a bit of an outsider amid the intense competition. It was the year of Kevin Smith's "Clerks," David O. Russell's "Spanking the Monkey" and Steve James' "Hoop Dreams."
"People were handing out trinkets to promote their films — like when you're in high school and running for president," she said. "I was like 'holy (expletive), we were supposed to make something?'"
This year, she'll be debuting "Certain Women," based on Maile Meloy's short stories and starring Michelle Williams, Kirsten Stewart and Laura Dern.
Sundance is Whit Stillman's good luck charm.
His first film, "Metropolitan," a wry comedy about debutantes in New York City, premiered there in 1990. It lost out on the grand jury prize, but he remembers it as a Cinderella story. At the first screening, he sat behind an amused Roger Ebert, who gave the film a positive review.
He came back to serve on the jury years later, around the time when "Barcelona" was finding its footing in Europe. Then in 2010, when "Metropolitan" played in a retrospective, days later, Stillman secured financing for "Damsels in Distress."
"Sundance is more open to comedies and quiet, humanistic films than some other festivals where it's a pretty tough, grim, film-buff crowd," Stillman said. "If it's a light movie, they might very well walk out."
Stillman's latest, the period comedy "Love and Friendship" (based on Jane Austen's "Lady Susan"), reunites his "Last Days of Disco" actresses Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny.
"I had a suspiciously good time my first time at Sundance," said Kenneth Lonergan, who took his directorial debut, "You Can Count on Me," to the festival in 2000. "I actually came home from the festival and proposed to my now wife. That's how good a mood I was in."
The film won the Waldo Walt Screenwriting Award and tied with Karyn Kusama's "Girlfight" to win the grand jury prize. It also scored two Oscar nominations for original screenplay and actress (Laura Linney).
Lonergan's third feature, "Manchester by the Sea," is a drama about a man who has to take care of his orphaned nephew. It stars Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler.
Todd Solondz already had a distributor in place for his idiosyncratic sophomore feature, "Welcome to the Dollhouse," by the time it reached Sundance in 1996.
"It was a happy time," said Solondz. "It opens a lot of doors for you."
The darkly comedic tale of eccentric middle schooler Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo) captivated audiences that year before going on to win the grand jury prize.
This year, Solondz is premiering "Wiener-Dog," which sees the return of Dawn Wiener, but this time she's played by Greta Gerwig. Matarazzo told Solondz years ago that she never wanted to play the character again.
"If you're looking for a sequel, you might be a little disappointed," Solondz said.