The aforementioned Coens represent a kind of side category at Sundance: the indie auteurs who've transcended the genre. This includes filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino (who took Reservoir Dogs to Park City in 1992), David O. Russell (who won the Audience Award in 1994 for Spanking the Monkey), Darren Aronofksy (a Directing Award-winner in 1998 for Pi), and Christopher Nolan (who won the Screenwriting Award in 2001 for Memento).
But there are also the directors who don't move on to make Best Picture nominees, or summer blockbusters, or Noah. Some, like Noah Baumbach or documentarian Alex Gibney, dip back into Sundance every so often, depending on the kinds of projects they're presenting. With his early films Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy, Baumbach established a reputation as a Whit Stillman-adjacent social observer, and later as a Wes Anderson screenplay collaborator. With The Squid and the Whale, which won Baumbach directing and screenwriting prizes at Sundance in 2005, the director re-asserted his brand of misanthropic social satire, and ever since he's been playing with variations on that theme (Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg, the upcoming While We're Young).
Baumbach's back this year with Mistress America, a re-teaming with Greta Gerwig after their previous collaboration, Frances Ha, suggested a different, less acidic direction for the filmmaker. Gibney, meanwhile, tends to spread his premieres out between festivals at Toronto or Tribeca, but he's taken many a film to Sundance, with docs on Jack Abramoff, Hunter S. Thompson, Ken Kesey, and Julian Assange. This year, he's showcasing Going Clear: Scientology and the Prism of Belief, and the dishy nature of the subject matter, plus Gibney's reputation, ensures quite a spotlight.
Differences of tone between festivals often contribute to the way films—and filmmakers—choose to market themselves. Toronto is more commercial and Oscar-focused; Tribeca is more modest; South by Southwest more hipster. Prolific mumblecore director Joe Swanberg had firmly established himself as a South by Southwest guy with early films like Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends. But he finally arrived at Sundance as part of the omnibus horror anthology V/H/S in 2012, and returned again last year with his family comedy Happy Christmas, and the shift between festivals has reflected (or influenced) Swanberg's progression toward becoming a more visible indie name. He's back at Sundance this year with Digging for Fire, which features a who's who cast of indie darlings including Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Brie Larson, Chris Messina, and Ron Livingston. Oh, and Orlando Bloom.
Then there are the Sundance directors who are back this year after straying from the path. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck first hit Sundance in 2006 with Half Nelson (which would go on to nab Ryan Gosling an Oscar nomination), before returning in 2008 with Sugar. Their 2010 film It's Kind of a Funny Story felt Sundance-y but never actually played there, and its failure to make a splash anywhere (despite being an eminently likeable movie) put their upward trajectory on hold. They return to Park City in 2015 with Mississippi Grind, which features Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn as a pair of road-tripping poker players.