How did Joss Whedon pick Wesleyan? "The weather was nice that day, and people had weed." Scores of alums of the nation's best programs remember their salad days for THR's fifth annual ranking.
So, you want to be a director. Or a screenwriter. Or a sound engineer. Or maybe you just want to take a class on independent movie producing taught by Matthew McConaughey. Whatever your dream, there's a film school in the United States — or abroad (see sidebar) — that wants your tuition check.
But, of course, not all film schools are created equal. That's why THR has been ranking the top 25 programs every year for half a decade. To assemble this year's list, the magazine toured campuses, met with deans and educators, talked to academic and industry experts and observers, and interviewed scores of alums. Multiple factors were weighed during the assigning of these rankings — prestige, practical experience, inspirational teachers, potential career connections and access to cutting-edge equipment (like the VR cameras USC recently acquired). The results on the following pages are nothing if not educational.
See the 2014 List The Top 25 Film Schools in the United States 2014
See the 2013 List The Top 25 Film Schools in the United States 2013
See the 2012 List The Top 25 Film Schools in the United States 2012
See the 2011 List The Top 25 Film Schools in the United States 2011
This story first appeared in the Aug. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
It's getting a $2 million face-lift — rebuilds of the studio control rooms, new cameras, an upgrade to the graphics equipment — which should be complete just in time for the fall semester. The school, in central New York, recently started a new partnership with the governor's office, co-hosting a conference on campus this year.
Notable Alumni: Terminator Genisys producer Bill Carraro, Robert Iger
About 1,000 films, from scenes to shorts, get made at this Denver-based school every year — not bad considering it has only about 400 students. It's also the only school with its own custom-made computer game that lets students work in a virtual economy of a simulated production set. Notes founding director Frederic Lahey, "They start to understand crew structure."
Notable Alumni: Director Bradley King (his first feature, Time Lapse, just got picked up by Lionsgate)
This fall, Northwestern adds a documentary MFA program to its roster of higher degrees (sound arts is next, in 2016). But the film department is still overshadowed by Northwestern's theater program (No. 7 on THR's undergrad ranking this year), where Stephen Colbert, David Schwimmer and Julia Louis-Dreyfus learned to act. Says Dean Barbara O'Keefe, "We need to bring every part of our program to that level of visibility."
Notable Alumni: Anna Gunn, Hobbit producer Ken Kamins
Its digital arts program graduated its first class in 2015, and a 5,000-square-foot facility upgrade with animation and VFX labs was recently unveiled. Alums of this small Tallahassee school tend to stay in touch once they graduate. "We all moved to L.A., and everyone leaned on each other — it's a big reason I've been able to make films," says It Follows director David Robert Mitchell (MFA, '02).
Notable Alumni: Maze Runner director Wes Ball, Marvel Studios exec Stephen Broussard
This small Southern California school is best known for turning out top-flight commercial directors, but its alumni include some big-name Hollywood filmmakers, such as Michael Bay (MFA, '88) and Zack Snyder (MFA, '89). "I was in London studying to be a painter, thinking about trying something else, when my dad sent me catalogs for film schools," says Snyder. "The Art Center was by far the best-looking. But the school encouraged a real-world attitude. They had a course called The Psychology of Success, which taught, 'If you have a job, you're going to lose it.' That's what I'm talking about!"
Notable Alumni: Cinematographer Larry Fong, director Tarsem Singh
Who knew Syracuse was an international hub? This upstate New York school has global connections all over the place, including offering a summer in Bologna, Italy (where students get to hang out with Bernardo Bertolucci). Says music video editor Thom Oliphant (MFA, '92), "It wasn't merely production courses — it was an education with a theoretical base."
Notable Alumni: Writer Rob Edwards, Pixar president Jim Morris
Last fall, the program graduated from being merely the department of cinema to the full-fledged School of Cinema. And it has been adding muscle to more than just its name, hiring five professors in the past three years. "I would say our students get a smattering of everything," says Steven Kovacs, the former head of Roger Corman's company who now is the school's interim chair. Recent grads have landed jobs at Industrial Light & Magic and the Cinema Arts Centre in New York.
Notable Alumni: Inside Out producer Jonas Rivera
RISD's program is so avant-garde, it doesn't even use the word film — it's called "chemical acquisition." Department head Dennis Hlynsky says working with old-fashioned prints teaches students lessons they "carry over to digital acquisition methods, making them better filmmakers." Not surprisingly for an art school, half the program's students focus on animation. They'll get to take advantage of the school's new relationship with Laika, the studio that made the Oscar-nominated Coraline.
Notable Alumni: Martha Coolidge, Seth MacFarlane, Gus Van Sant
The 48-acre campus on Florida's Gulf Coast is home to one of the most innovative visual arts programs in the country, with students mostly focusing on computer and game design and illustration. Patrick Osborne ('03) won the 2015 Oscar for his animated short Feast, and more than 30 grads worked on three of last year's five Oscar-nominated animated features (including the winner, Big Hero 6). A 14,000-square-foot production facility, Stage 41, opened in 2014, and a 30,000-square-foot soundstage and post facility is being built. Along with hosting guest artists (Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright), Ringling has helped connect students with summer internships with Roman Coppola and Matt Dillon, among others. "Going to college isn't necessarily going to get you a job in this industry," says Jason Letkiewicz ('11), who was nominated for an Emmy in 2013 for an AIDS awareness PSA, "but it gave me a bit of a superpower. I'll be around colleagues who don't have that experience, and their work is not as good."
Notable Alumni: YouTube makeup superstar Michelle Phan
The largest film school in the country — with more than 1,500 students — is adding eight new BFA degrees this year (in screenwriting, producing, directing and cinematography, among others). The idea, according to department chair Bruce Sheridan, is to produce undergrads who don't need a higher degree to find a job. "We know that 25 is old in Hollywood," he says. "With the right resources and teaching, you can get a four-year undergrad to step onto a film set and work as if they already had years of experience." Says HBO Films president Len Amato (BFA, '75), "They made us feel like working in film was a holy endeavor and a privilege."Notable Alumni: Selma exec producer Paul Garnes, Janusz Kaminski
This year, SCAD opened its brand-new Savannah Film Studios, a 22,000-square-foot filmmaking complex that includes three soundstages as well as editing and postproduction wings. That's in addition to its other facilities at campuses in Atlanta (where it has a 60,000-square-foot digital media center), Hong Kong and Lacoste, France. The school also hosts the Savannah Film Festival and brings in reps from companies like Pixar to recruit on campus. "It's how I got my first job," says Zach Parrish (BFA, '07), who recently was head of animation on Big Hero 6.
Notable Alumni: In a World producer Jett Steiger
This small film school in Winston-Salem has surprisingly strong Hollywood connections. Every year, selected senior films get screened in L.A. for industry audiences, while fresh graduates get flown out for field trips to the major agencies. "Main Street, the little drag of the film school, looks like a backlot of a fake town," says Brett Haley ('05), director of I'll See You in My Dreams, which screened this year at Sundance. "But the theater at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts was the greatest movie theater I have ever been in, in terms of quality, picture and sound. Getting to see Star Wars in 70mm there, through a film history class, was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Notable Alumni: David Gordon Green, Danny McBride
You want exclusive? How about eight students a year. And documentaries are the only sort of filmmaking studied here. Many of the docs made on this Northern California campus end up on PBS. Eleven have won student Academy Awards in the past 15 years, and this year, alum Christian Jensen (MFA, '13) was nominated for an Academy Award for his short White Earth. "The program puts you through the fire with serious critique and feedback," says Jensen. "You're required to defend your ideas and flesh out in a really developed way how you want to approach your project." This fall, the school gets fancy new digs as it moves into the just-built McMurtry Building in the Stanford Arts District.
Notable Alumni: Documentarians Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk
This fall, BU will add another MFA — in Cinema and Media Production — to its roster of film and TV MFAs in addition to its undergraduate film studies program. But it's the school's L.A. outpost, where every year 200 students attend lectures by industry bigwigs (from Jason Alexander to Jim Gianopulos) that's propelling its reputation as a serious place to learn about filmmaking. "I'm one of those who believes in film school," says Lauren Shuler Donner (MFA, '71). "My time at BU served me well. It provided me connections and gave me my start."
Notable Alumni: Joe Roth, Howard Stern, Nina Tassler
This film school is among the most affordable on this list. But students get a lot for their money at this public university — like the Advanced Producing course taught by alum Matthew McConaughey (BFA, '93). It's also one of the few schools teaching 3D production, though some alums downplay the importance of trendy high-tech equipment. "It didn't matter what technology we were using back then," says Rizzoli & Isles executive producer Michael Zinberg (MFA). "We were taught how to tell a story."
Notable Alumni: Robert Rodriguez
Boston's Emerson was one of the first northeastern schools to open a satellite campus in L.A. — it started sending students west in 1988, holding classes in leased spaces in Burbank. But now it's doing it with style, in a new $110 million super-futuristic glass and aluminum complex on Sunset Boulevard designed by prize- winning architect Thom Mayne (the guy who built the Caltrans headquarters downtown, nicknamed the "Death Star"). "It's a relatively small school, and we have an underdog mentality that tends to follow us into our careers," says Seth Grahame-Smith (BFA, '98), writer of the upcoming Batman Lego Movie. "It makes us look out for each other more than alums from the bigger schools. The term 'Emerson Mafia' gets thrown around a lot."
Notable Alumni: New Regency's Pam Abdy, DreamWorks' Holly Bario, Sony's Andrea Giannetti, Viacom's Doug Herzog
This year, the film studies department became the College of Film and the Moving Image — or C-Film — thanks to a $6 million endowment partly from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. But undergrad film majors still have to learn a core curriculum. "To be successful in film, you need to know not just the skills of filmmaking but history, literature, science," says film scholar Jeanine Basinger, who founded the department. None of that is what drew young Joss Whedon ('87) to the school. "When it came to choosing colleges, the weather was nice that day and people had weed," he explains of how he ended up studying film in Connecticut. "My favorite place on campus was the crappy little underground screening room. I was a projectionist, so I could sneak in and put on whatever classic was sitting in a tin. I studied with Richard Slotkin, who has decoded and defined the American mythos more completely and clearly than any living soul. His Horse Soldiers Western film class set roots in all my work. I try to make science fiction, but I always end up making a Western."
Notable Alumni: Michael Bay, Toby Emmerich, Akiva Goldsman, Alex Kurtzman, Zak Penn, Benh Zeitlin
"I applied to a couple of schools, but after I toured Loyola, I actually canceled my applications to the others," recalls The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1 and 2 director Francis Lawrence ('91) of his time at this picturesque campus nestled in the bluffs over West L.A. But there's more to Loyola than a pretty setting; the school is wired into the industry like few others, with more than 400 partner companies (including Disney, Sony, NBCUniversal and Paramount) that provide internships to about 100 students a year. In June, Loyola launched a partnership with Ghetto Film School, starting a four-week summer workshop for low-income high school students.
Notable Alumni: James Bond franchise producer Barbara Broccoli, The Simpsons producer David Mirkin, American Horror Story writer-producer James Wong
The paint is barely dry on Chapman's $45 million, 76,000-square-foot Marion Knott Studios (complete with soundstages, high-def broadcast equipment, Foley stages and motion-capture studios) and already the Orange, Calif., school is getting ready to unveil another new facility. In fall 2016, the doors will open on Chapman Studios West, a 38,000-square-foot production center. With all that space, it's not surprising the school has created its own production company, Chapman Filmed Entertainment, designed to give students true hands-on experience in making, marketing and distributing films. Says Tristen Tuckfield (MFA, '06), now an agent at CAA, "The adage 'you get what you put in' was never more clear to me than when I was at Chapman. You had a lot of great tools at your disposal, and great mentors, but at the end of the day, it all came back to how much time and effort you put toward your goal."
Notable Alumni: The Amazing Race producer Darren Bunkley, Masters of Sex editor Rebekah Parmer, Dear White People director Justin Simien
Columbia offered its first film studies class way back in 1915, when the box-office hits were The Birth of a Nation and The Tramp. Its current faculty is made up of such indie luminaries as former Focus Features head James Schamus, director Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes) and producer Anne Carey (Adventureland), so it's not surprising that many of its students gravitate toward upscale fare (graduates of its screenwriting program frequently wind up with scripts on the Black List). But its Upper Manhattan campus produces filmmakers of all stripes, from the first woman to win a directing Oscar (Kathryn Bigelow, MFA, '81) to the guy who wrote X-Men: Days of Future Past, Simon Kinberg (MFA, '03). "I'd never written a single page of a script before I got to Columbia," he says. "But I immediately felt like I would be supported. There's a spirit of creative collaboration there, which itself was a great prep for movie sets, where you're balancing all these different perspectives and opinions."
Notable Alumni: Lisa Cholodenko, Jennifer Lee, Kimberly Peirce
You don't have to go to USC to have James Franco as a teacher. This fall, the actor returns to CalArts' Valencia campus for his fourth One Act to Cinematic Event, a class in which students will adapt Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie into a live multimedia performance. Of course, CalArts — founded in 1961 by Walt Disney — is most famous for producing A-list animators (John Lasseter, chief creative officer of Walt's company, studied here). But even filmmakers who prefer live action can learn a lot at CalArts. "When I was there in the 1980s, it reminded me of the high school in Fame," says Wolverine director James Mangold ('85). "There was a kind of electric energy."
Notable Alumni: Frozen co-director Chris Buck, Tim Burton, Big Hero 6 director Don Hall, Inside Out director Pete Docter
When Alexander Payne ('90) was a young college grad trying to decide where to go for his MFA, he spent a couple of days in L.A. visiting UCLA and USC. "At USC they told me, 'You have to come to USC — it's just like Hollywood,' " recalls Payne. "And at UCLA they told me: 'Why would you go to USC? It's just like Hollywood.' " While USC is known for a pragmatic approach to teaching — encouraging students to specialize — UCLA is a more free-range campus, immersing students in every aspect of filmmaking, from lighting to sound. Lately, UCLA has been focusing more on socially active filmmaking. This year, it sent a graduate student on the International Antarctic Expedition to shoot a doc on climate change. In November, it inaugurated UCLA's Skoll Center for Social Impact Entertainment, which — with a $10 million endowment from Participant Media's Jeff Skoll — will conduct research on socially minded media.
Notable Alumni: Jack Black, David Koepp, Mike Medavoy, Rob Reiner, Tim Robbins, Darren Star
Years of improvements to the 8-acre enclave overlooking Hollywood — including renovations to the library and screening room — finally are complete. And the new dean, former German Film and Television Academy director Jan Schuette, already has made one big change: For the first time, this year's incoming class in the directors program — 28 students in total — includes more females than males. As with USC, one of AFI's big draws always has been its proximity to the industry, with local talent driving up the hill for guest lectures (in February, Bennett Miller held a directing workshop). But AFI's tradition of "narrative workshops," during which students sit silently as their classmates tear their film projects to shreds, has been known to send some aspiring filmmakers fleeing for law school."The first year, you make several short films and bring them to the narrative workshop, where everyone responds to them and you're not allowed to talk," recalls Ed Zwick ('75). "That is a very interesting moment for anyone who's been coddled by a sweet, touchy-feely liberal arts education. My first project was roundly savaged, and my second project was only slightly less reviled."
Notable Alumni: Darren Aronofsky, David Lynch, Terrence Malick
NYU has been churning out auteurs since 1939, but age isn't the only thing that makes it old school: It's among the few graduate film programs that still requires students to shoot at least one project on 16mm film (though graduate Sean Baker's Tangerine, which premiered this year at Sundance, was shot entirely on an iPhone). "In my senior year, I got offered a job from Brian Grazer to be his assistant," recalls Brett Ratner ('91; his classmates included Todd Phillips, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Bennett Miller). "I went to see my professor and said, 'I got offered a job from the biggest producer in Hollywood.' He said: 'Whatever you do, don't take it. You're not meant to work for anyone.' I said: 'So what do I do? I'm graduating.' He said, 'Go make a film.' Best advice I ever got."
Notable Alumni: Joel Coen, Chris Columbus, Steve McQueen, Martin Scorsese, M. Night Shyamalan, Oliver Stone
USC always has kept an eye on the future, exploring new ideas and technologies even before Hollywood learns about them. That's one reason why it's THR's No. 1 pick for the third year in a row. "They've always been cutting edge," says Marvel president Kevin Feige (class of '95). "When I went, they had Moviolas, video machines, something called EditDroid — the first-ever digital editing machine — and these new machines called Avids. A year after I graduated, I was interning at a big production company at Warner Bros. The editorial team was just starting to talk about digital. I remember thinking, 'Oh you got to use Avids. I learned about this a year ago at USC.' " Another reason USC is at the top of this list: location, location, location. Being in the belly of the Hollywood beast — in Exposition Park — gives USC access to some of the best teachers in the industry, or at least some of the coolest. Like James Franco, who has been lecturing on independent producing for the last three semesters.
Notable Alumni: Judd Apatow, Doug Liman, George Lucas, Neal Moritz, Jason Reitman, Bryan Singer, John Wells