01/27/2012 07:57 am ET Updated Mar 28, 2012

Sundance Film Festival: Filmmakers Aim To Balance Personal, Commercial

With so much going on, so much to see and hear and ogle, so many Paris Hilton sightings and free vodka sodas, it can be easy to forget the real purpose of the Sundance Film Festival: to showcase, and in many cases sell, quality independent films from young and ambitious filmmakers, many of whom are making the trek to the mountains for the first time.

But to earn a slot in competition, to really make an impression, filmmakers often need to secure some festival-friendly talent -- even before they secure funding -- and hope their film can break out of the pack. To do so, they often have to straddle a line between the personal and commercial, ensuring their films have a life beyond the the festival.

Luckily, many of these filmmakers have amassed networks and contacts that enable them to tell the story they want, while utilizing well-known performers willing to work for very little.

Like Colin Trevorrow, director of "Safety Not Guaranteed," which follows three amateur journalists investigating a mysterious personal ad. Though Trevorrow is a Sundance first-timer, he's built an industry knowledge base and personal network over the years that helped buoy his initial outing.

Directing "is definitely an enterpreunerial art," Trevorrow said. "It's something you have to participate in in that way. But part of that is convincing people to believe in the same things you believe in. And that's why it's important to care a lot about what you're offering."

Trevorrow moved with his wife and child to Burlington, Vt., a couple of years ago from Los Angeles, where he had lived for almost a decade as a screenwriter, selling quite a few scripts to studios. When his close friend and collaborator Derek Connolly brought him the script to "Safety Not Guaranteed," the two put together a team of actors more familiar to younger, indie-friendly audiences.

They attached Trevorrow's old friend, the actor Jake Johnson, who currently stars on Fox's Zooey Deschanel series, "The New Girl." And Connolly knew the actress Aubrey Plaza, a star of the TV series "Parks and Recreation," among other recent films, and tailored the part specifically for her. They then brought the project to indie pioneer Mark Duplass, who'd been at the helm of some Sundance favorites over the years ("Cyrus," "Humpday," and "Baghead," among a starring role on the FX comedy, "The League,") and asked if he'd produce and act in the comedy.

After that, they had a solid, Sundance-friendly package to bring to producers at Big Beach Films.

"I've been doing this for a while now on the screenwriting side of things and I've learned you want to present an actual movie, not just the idea for a movie," Trevorrow said. "You want to say: these are all the elements, now you can imagine how it's going to play out. A clarity of vision."

This "clarity of vision" is a notion that Michael Mohan, director of the relationship dramedy "Save the Date," caught onto before this year. Having been to the festival twice before -- in 2010 with his full-length coming-of-age comedy, "One Too Many Mornings," filmed in black and white, and last year with a short film, "Ex-Sex" -- Mohan was aware that neither of his previous films boasted big names. Alternately, his entry for this year, "Save the Date," features Lizzy Caplan, "Community" star Alison Brie, and the scruffy and Apatow-friendly Martin Starr in lead roles.

Though each film dug deeply from experiences in Mohan's own life, the slightly higher profile of "Save the Date" has made this year's outing a lot smoother, Mohan said, and he's more confident that the marketing side of things will work itself out.

"My first year was much more overwhelming than this time around," Mohan said. "We had been filming nights and weekends in our apartment, for nothing. And then I had to come to [Sundance] and talk like a real director, and figure out how we were going to get the film out there. I was just not very confident, out of sorts.

"But this year it's kind of nice because we know we made a film that's going to sell," Mohan added. "I don't have to deal with it because I have people who can deal with the business side."

Trevorrow echoed that notion. Because of the team he's built -- "a bunch of real smart people in cool, expensive clothes" -- he said he can enjoy himself a bit more.

For Jessie Ennis, the youngest filmmaker with a festival entry and a junior at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, Sundance was an auspicious experience, especially considering the humble beginnings of her initial filming and editing process.

Along with her two best friends, Brie Larson and Sarah Ramos -- both actresses with impressive credits in TV and film who had never made a film before -- the three wrote, directed and produced their short about the perils of texting and young love -- "The Arm" -- on a whim, with a budget of barely $800. "We just wanted to try something purely out of passion," Ennis said.

Like Trevorrow, Ennis and her co-creators enlisted friends and former co-workers to act in the film, among them the actress Jessica Hecht, with whom Larson and Ennis had performed with at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and Miles Heizer, one of Ramos' co-stars in the TV series "Parenthood," who plays the lead role.

"We're not really looking to make any money back," Ennis said over the phone from a "pretty bad" Mexican restaurant in Park City. "We really did this to see what kind of filmmakers we are. The whole time we were [making it], we kept saying: we're not doing anything with this, we'll put it in our closets, we'll just show our kids one day. We were really just making it for fun, and to explore these themes we wanted to explore."

The idea of submitting to Sundance hadn't even occurred to them until they realized the deadline for film submissions was fast approaching, and so, why not? "My friends said: I bet we could edit it in time! We could do this," Ennis recalled. "But I was abroad in London and I was like, I don't want to rush the process, we're not done with it yet. But then I was there, like 4 in the morning, on Skype with the editor."

Mohan had been working in various degrees on "Save the Date" since he first saw the script in 2006. And though he was connected to Sundance early on through his day job at the Sundance Lab -- "making copies and popcorn for other writers and directors" -- he said he made countless, less-than-stellar short films and was officially rejected "five or six times" before he got anything in.

"The only edge up I had was that I got to be a fly on the most interesting of walls -- I had the coolest day job ever, and that was really the best continuation of my education," he said, referring to his time at the Lab. "Stuart Stern who wrote 'Rebel Without a Cause' once said a thing [at a workshop] that changed my life. He said that filmmaking is a gift, not everybody gets a chance to make films. It's a gift for you to be able to share your life, and a gift for the audience and if you're telling stories that aren't personal to you, it's a waste of that gift."

All three filmmakers seemed to agree the personal side of filmmaking most appeals to them. "Why make anything if it's not personal?" Mohan asked. And while each came into the with varying levels of experience, they seem excited, proud and lucky to attach these friends and acquaintances who can draw other kinds of attention.

And the Sundance audiences and industry types have responded favorably. The Seattle Times noted that the audience at Sunday night's screening of "Safety Not Guaranteed" "broke into spontaneous applause and cheers before the movie even hit its final scene."

While Mohan's "Save the Date" has received mixed reviews, the AV Club's Nathan Rabin raved, writing that the film is "smart, funny, sexy, sad and refreshingly devoid of cliches" and "occupies a higher evolutionary plane than most other wedding-themed romantic comedies."

Ennis, Larson, and Ramos' film, "The Arm," has already taken home a Special Jury Award for Comedic Storytelling from Sundance and was selected as one of nine short films to stream on Yahoo! And the teams behind Both "Safety" and "Save the Date" have heard from producers and studios vying to release the films to wider audiences.

"The best thing about the festival is that you realize the organizers just want to see good movies," Mohan said. "When you start talking about marketability, financing, it's really very simple: Good movies always find an audience. Great scripts always find financing."

"Write something good," he added. "Good is commercial."

Watch clips and interviews from these filmmakers' projects below: