LOS ANGELES -- As Kristen Stewart, Elisabeth Moss and Joseph Gordon-Levitt have learned, the Sundance Film Festival in the mountains of Utah is the ideal destination to get away from it all and work on that career shift.
Robert Redford's two-week celebration of independent cinema kicked off its 30th year Thursday in Park City, Utah, with a lineup that includes 117 feature films. One of them is "Camp X-Ray," in which Ms. Stewart plays against type as a Guantanamo Bay guard who befriends a prisoner.
Ms. Stewart, who was last at the festival in 2010 when she was promoting her role as Joan Jett in "The Runaways," says "Camp X-Ray" was one of the rare scripts she'd read that made her want to work again after her two-year acting hiatus following the "Twilight" movies.
"At my age it's difficult to find stuff that isn't completely derivative," said the 23-year-old in a recent interview. "Most parts are imitating something else that was popular."
With "Snow White and the Huntsman 2" coming in 2015, Ms. Stewart's big-budget franchise days are far from over. "But it's a little bit more difficult to create the environment that I thrive in on a bigger movie," she explains. "I prefer doing smaller ones. They're quicker. I like intensive things and then I like to walk away."
For Mr. Gordon-Levitt, persistence has paid off. This will be his seventh consecutive year at Sundance, and he'll be presenting the first three episodes of "HitRecord on TV." It's the cable TV extension (airing on the Pivot network) of his HitRecord.com, a website dedicated to giving artists a platform to share and develop their work.
"HitRecord started at Sundance in 2005 in a way," says Mr. Gordon-Levitt. "But it was more of an informal hobby." Then, in 2010, it was launched at Sundance as an official production company.
Mr. Gordon-Levitt says the fest "feels like a home away from home," which made it the perfect place last year to debut his first feature film, the porn addiction tale "Don Jon."
Looking back on a whirlwind year full of "HitRecord on TV" development and the success of his acclaimed debut feature, Mr. Gordon-Levitt says TV has required far more effort than film.
"Everybody already knew what to do and how to do it on 'Don Jon,' " he says. "Whereas, with making a television show with hundreds of thousands of artists from all over the world who are uploading their work on the Internet, there isn't much of a precedent of how you go about that. But it's been so rewarding."
Other actors and filmmakers have also picked Sundance as their coming out party. Last year, little-known actor Michael B. Jordan's popularity spiked when he starred in the fest's jury prize winner, "Fruitvale Station." And noted documentarian Alex Gibney, returning this year with "Finding Fela!," has been attending the festival for years.
Back at Sundance with two films this year, "Mad Men's" Elisabeth Moss stars in "Listen Up Philip," a New York-based comedy about an angry writer (Jason Schwartzman) anxious for the publication of his second novel. Ms. Moss also stars in "The One I Love," in which she and Mark Duplass portray a married couple on the brink of separation hoping to reconnect on a weekend getaway.
In comparison to her role as Peggy Olson on AMC's "Mad Men," both films "have really different sensibilities," said Ms. Moss in a phone interview. It's an especially appealing factor for Ms. Moss, who shot the films during "Mad Men's" hiatus. "I wanted to explore things that were closer to my every day."
But that doesn't mean she'll pass on another killer TV role. "There's something very fulfilling about developing a character over a period of years," she says. "But I like to do films because you do it for a few weeks or a few months and then you move on."
Her last trip to Sundance in 2012 was to promote the Sundance Channel miniseries "Top of the Lake." Her performance won her a best actress Golden Globe award on Sunday night.
Ms. Moss says she's excited to have "the real Sundance experience" this year. "Pound the pavement and try to sell our movies," she adds. "Without wearing heels!"