The Hollywood Reporter grades the colleges and universities — from USC to AFI — training Hollywood's next generation of cinematic geniuses.
Some people go to film school to learn the latest about 360-degree fly cams and head-mounted display systems. Others go to study the esoterics of film history and theory (usually at No. 10 Wesleyan). And many just want to figure out how to point a camera and make the movies that keep playing out in their heads.
These days, there's a school for everybody, though not all are created equal, so here's THR's annual Top 25 Film Schools list to sort out the differences. The magazine consulted with educators, alumni and industry pros to rank the best of the best. Somewhere on these pages is a school to match every ambition, even if that ambition is to just make friends in a TV writers room (see No. 11, University of Texas).
Reporting by Ashley Cullins, Rebecca Ford, Mia Galuppo, Borys Kit, Pamela McClintock, Brian Porreca, Tatiana Siegel and Rebecca Sun.
Elizabeth Daley, longtime dean of USC's School of Cinematic Arts, has no peer when it comes to convincing big names to write big checks. In 2016, the school's most famous alum, George Lucas ('67), pledged an additional $10 million (bringing the total to $20 million) toward his financial aid fund for African-American and Hispanic students (part of the school's push to have more diverse voices be heard in Hollywood). And this year, John Wells ('82), producer of Shameless, The West Wing and ER, made what's being called a "significant gift" to endow the Writing Division (significant enough to get it renamed the John Wells Division of Writing for Screen & Television). "I ran out of money halfway through my first year in the masters' program," remembers Wells. "Art Murphy [a founder of the Peter Stark Producing program] made some calls and had my tuition paid." This year, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association launched a new $2 million fund to assist with the education of non-native aspiring filmmakers. But what keeps USC at No. 1 on THR's list — for the fifth straight year — is the school's top-notch faculty and facilities (like the new Jaunt Cinematic Virtual Reality Lab). Not to mention location, location, location. Its campus in Exposition Park puts it smack dab in Hollywood's backyard.
Tuition $51,442 (undergrad per year); $31,710-$46,454 (grad)
Notable alumni Matt Reeves, Shonda Rhimes, Bryan Singer, John Singleton, Robert Zemeckis
The East Coast's most prestigious film school continues to make waves on the West Coast. Alum Jon Watts ('04) helmed Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Reed Morano ('01) directed three episodes of Hulu's Handmaid's Tale. This year, the school is launching an initiative to loan out production equipment at no charge to graduates to help them get a leg up while making their first film. Wendy Calhoun ('91), whose writing and producing credits include the TV series Empire, Nashville and Revenge, says funding was the biggest challenge when starting out — but NYU prepared her for the real-world financing grind. "I was a nanny, a music video production coordinator, a feature film PA and an audio book producer," she says. "The multitasking made me a skilled producer long before I ever held the title." Dean Allyson Green also is celebrating the Tisch School of the Arts first class of graduates with dual degrees in film and business, through its partnership with the elite Stern School. And undergrads have a historic new set at their disposal this year due to a partnership with Kaufman Astoria Studios, home to Sesame Street, Orange Is the New Black and Birdman.
Tuition $52,902 (undergrad); $56,454 (grad)
Notable alumni James Franco, Ang Lee, Martin Scorsese
This year, UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television begins a partnership with Universite Cote d'Azur to create an "immersive" screenwriting program in which students spend six weeks on the French coast writing their own original feature-length script (the trip culminates with a walk on the red carpet during the Cannes Film Festival). Those left behind in Westwood, though, still have plenty to play with, including a new VR lab complete with 360-degree cameras and head-mounted display systems. But the best part of UCLA's TFT — aside from its Hollywood-adjacent location and superb academic reputation — is its free-spirited approach to filmmaking. "My first couple of films I made were about transgender friends," says director Penelope Spheeris ('73), who went on to make the acclaimed documentary series The Decline of Western Civilization. "It was OK that I was an outsider, that I didn't follow the same pattern the other students followed. It was OK to be different."
Tuition $15,967 (in-state undergrad); $16,899-$27,936 (in-state grad); $43,941 (out-of-state undergrad); $32,001-$40,181 (out-of-state grad)
Notable alumni Francis Ford Coppola, Channing Dungey, Alex Gibney, Justin Lin, Joe Russo
A faculty uprising last fall ousted controversial dean Jan Schuette — 30 teachers signed a letter accusing the German director of fostering a "culture of fear, intimidation and bullying" — throwing the renowned school into an uncertain future. Things are starting to settle on AFI's bucolic campus with the hiring in May of dean Richard Gladstein. The Oscar-nominated producer (Pulp Fiction, The Bourne Identity, The Cider House Rules) tells THR one of his first acts will be to set up an advisory council (director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Mark Boal will be among its members) to work with students on their thesis films. He also plans on giving students more elbow room to experiment outside their creative silos. "Writers want to direct, directors want to learn cinematography and cinematographers, they just want to be left alone," he quips about the change. But with no academic experience (at least since attending BU's film school in the 1980s), he'll have his work cut out for him as he takes the reins of the still feisty 50-year-old institution.
Tuition $48,676 (first year); $60,253 (second year)
Notable alumni Patty Jenkins, Sam Esmail, David Lynch, Terrence Malick
This fall, the Ivy League MFA film program opens the doors to a new 150-seat theater in the just-completed Lenfest Center for the Arts (designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano) on its Upper Manhattan campus. "[The theater] expands our ability to get filmmakers from all over the world," says film chair Maureen Ryan, who invited Kathryn Bigelow ('81) to be among the first directors to use the theater (to screen her latest film, Detroit). A few blocks north, there's a new postproduction center chock-full of state-of-the-art equipment. And the school's digital lab, focusing on virtual and augmented reality, continues to grow. In May, students presented their final projects at Google's New York offices. Says Ryan, "Our program is grounded in storytelling, and this future-proofs our filmmakers for whatever happens."
Tuition $58,728 (grad)
Notable alumni Jennifer Lee, Simon Kinberg, Phil Johnson, Laura Ricciardi, Moira Demos
Its proximity to L.A. means access to top Hollywood guest lecturers. Among recent speakers: Netflix's Ted Sarandos (who has a son at the school), former Sony TV chief Steve Mosko (who sent both of his sons there), former Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton, AMPAS CEO Dawn Hudson, producer Nina Jacobson and directors Jon Favreau and Bryan Singer. But Chapman also sends students to shoot in Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, India and China as part of its Travel and Exchange program. The campus has two soundstages, cinematography and directing stages, a hair and makeup studio, a production design studio and a 500-seat Folio theater with film and digital projection. Says alumnus and Dear White People creator Justin Simien ('05), "From day one, I was encouraged to explore the sandbox, get messy, roll up my sleeves and start making mistakes."
Tuition $50,210 (undergrad); $42,000 (grad)
Notable alumni Matt and Ross Duffer (the twin brothers attended together), SNL director Mike Bernstein
Founded by Walt Disney, this school remains the happiest place on earth to study animation. This year, Rich Moore became the 10th alum (or CalArtian, as they call themselves) to take home an Oscar for best animated feature for co-directing Zootopia. To keep up with technological advances, the school launches new classes yearly, like 2017's Sound for Virtual Reality and Intro to Cinema 4D. But the halls are filled with Disney history. Alum Mark Osborne, director of The Little Prince, recalls his classes in the '90s with the late Jules Engel, the legendary Fantasia animator who created CalArts' Experimental Animation Program: "He would end every class by telling all of us that he loved us," says Osborne. "That's one of the things that stayed with me."
Notable alumni John Lasseter, Brad Bird, Tim Burton, Despicable Me 3 and Minions director Kyle Balda
With only 736 students, LMU keeps its class sizes small (12 students to a teacher), even as its Westside campus keeps growing. In the fall, the School of Film and Television received a $13 million grant from the Walter Lantz Foundation that will help fund a new building for a theater, visual effects workspace and editing suites. "It's in the middle of Los Angeles, which I think is important," says alumna Gloria Calderon Kellett, showrunner for Netflix's One Day at a Time, who sometimes returns to teach. "The energy on the campus is really comfortable. It feels like a hug. You're walking around and see people you know. I really appreciated that it felt like a small town in the middle of L.A."
Tuition $45,460 (undergrad); $21,852 (grad)
Notable alumni Dear White People producer Effie Brown, Barbara Broccoli, CAA agent Jim Toth
This fall, Emerson opens its Augmented and Virtual Reality Lab at its main Boston campus, with VR filmmaking classes also being taught at the satellite campus in L.A. But it's the small liberal arts college's internship program that continues to be its biggest draw, with students often landing gigs working for top Hollywood producers, networks and studios. FilmNation co-president of production and acquisitions Aaron Ryder ('94) did his internship at Working Title Films, which jump-started his career. "People talk about the Emerson Mafia — the alumni are really good at looking after up-and-coming students," he says. "I was able to find my internship solely because of an Emerson grad who worked at Working Title. And I've upheld my end. I've always hired Emerson interns."
Tuition $44,032 (undergrad); $20,016 (grad)
Notable alumni Norman Lear, Denis Leary, Jay Leno, Henry Winkler, writer-producer Seth Grahame-Smith, Will & Grace EP Max Mutchnick, Friends EP Kevin Bright
Jeanine Basinger is to film studies as Yoda is to the Force. She all but invented the discipline at this liberal arts college and has been the cornerstone (and main attraction) of Wesleyan's College of Film and Moving Image since she began teaching here in 1969. But even Jedis retire, and the 81-year-old beloved faculty icon (and, incidentally, Wonder Woman comic collector) is transitioning the running of the school to her successor, Scott Higgins. "He's an inspiring teacher and a good administrator," she promises of Higgins, who has a Ph.D. in film and is the author of three books. But without Basinger, Wesleyan faces a challenge to remain a center for cinematic studies. "It breaks my heart for every kid that won't have her," says alum Joss Whedon. "She is the greatest film teacher who ever lived."
Tuition $52,174 (undergrad)
Notable alumni Michael Bay, Akiva Goldsman, Alex Kurtzman, Matthew Weiner, D.B. Weiss, Paul Weitz, Joss Whedon
Even though it's 1,300 miles from Hollywood, B.A. and MFA students can expect to learn the ins and outs of film and TV production from seasoned industry veterans, including a course on writers room etiquette by longtime showrunner Scott Shepherd (The Equalizer). But some alumni claim that the miles can make a big difference in how one learns the business. "I felt that if I was going to study film and television, I should do it from a critical distance, rather than being immersed within the media in L.A. or New York," says alum Jordan Levin ('89), who recently was named CEO of Awesomeness.
Tuition Undergraduate: $10,252 (in state); $36,300 (out of state); graduate: $9,608 (in state); $18,086 (out of state)
Notable alumni Robert Rodriguez and Matthew McConaughey
Only eight students a year are admitted to Stanford's esteemed MFA film program — the only filmmaking degree at Stanford — and the only thing they study is documentaries. Each student in the two-year residency completes a 15- to 20-minute doc for his or her master's thesis, with recent weighty subjects including the Flint water crisis, Aleppo and death row executions.
Tuition $48,987 (grad)
Notable alumni An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power's Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk
When DreamWorks Animation co-president Bonnie Arnold gave this year's undergrad commencement speech, she noticed a big change on campus from when she graduated from the communications program (a precursor to the film program) in 1978. "So many women in the audience," she says. "There were a lot less women when I was there. So I had to think like one of the boys." But it's not just gender barriers being broken: Unlike most other programs, Boston University doesn't make a distinction between film and TV — a mind-set that department chairman Paul Schneider calls "an outdated way of thinking that will handicap students who are moving into the rapidly evolving media world."
Tuition $50,980 (undergrad); $51,846 (grad)
Notable alumni Jim Gianopulos, Bonnie Hammer and Cannes darlings Josh and Benny Safdie
Thanks to a partnership with Oculus, this small Southern school has been offering state-of-the-art education on high-tech filmmaking. This year, it's sharpening its cutting edge with the new $10 million Institute for Performance Innovation, which offers a concentration on gaming and VR. "The way iPhones changed the way we do business, VR will do the same," says dean Susan Ruskin. "The next generation of storytellers are going to need to learn their voices for this." The last generation, though, liked the school's loose, laid-back approach to learning. "When we were there, it felt like they just gave us cameras and let us figure things out," says director Jeff Nichols (Loving, Midnight Special), who graduated in 2001. "To be able to go to a film school in the South — the South! — was crucial to becoming the kind of filmmaker I am today."
Tuition Undergrad: $6,497 (in state), $22,240 (out of state); grad: $8,396 (in state), $22,103 (out of state)
Notable alumni Danny McBride and Vice Principals creators (and classmates at UNCSA) David Gordon Green and Jody Hill
The school recently combined its film and TV departments into one program, Cinema and Television Arts, which sets aside a production fund awarding as much as $100,000 a year to help bankroll student films. And it has extended its opportunities abroad, sending students to work in such locales as Beijing, Italy and Germany. Says Dana Tuinier ('06), now vp development and original programming at TV Land, "Columbia was where I first learned how to write but more importantly how to read a script."
Tuition $25,580 (undergrad); $32,000 (grad)
Notable alumni Jordan Vogt-Roberts (director, Kong: Skull Island), Lena Waithe (Master of None)
After Beth David and Esteban Bravo uploaded their instantly viral senior thesis film In a Heartbeat to YouTube on July 31, 24 million more people learned Ringling's name. And the far-flung Florida school's $18 million, 40,000-square-foot film facility, which opened in April, is helping reel in big-name guests. Kevin Smith shot his upcoming horror anthology Kilroy Was Here using Ringling students as production hands, while Justin Long collaborated with the Ringling College Studio Lab (a partnership with Semkhor Productions) for his Funny or Die miniseries The Real Stephen Blatt, which hit Amazon Prime in July. Jason Blum, Antoine Fuqua, Ethan Hawke and Jon Voight all have flown out to deliver guest lectures. A postproduction facility, designed by Roman Coppola and The Big Sick sound editor Tom Paul, is expected to be completed this fall.
Tuition $40,900 (undergrad)
Notable alumni Paradise, FL director Nick Morgulis, writer-director Jason Letkiewicz, Pixar story artist Mike Yates
The school has a new dean, Andra Reeve-Rabb, a former director of primetime casting at CBS New York. It also has a new chair of the film and television department, actor-director D.W. Moffett, who says he'll be tilting the direction of his department more toward TV and streaming, to reflect today's changing market demands. "The school wants to be responsive to current trends," he says. SCAD is one of the few schools to boast an Emmy win for one of its own productions: The SCAD-produced sitcom The Buzz won a Student Emmy for scripted series and was nominated for best comedy writing. SCAD will soon launch two new single-camera shows.
Tuition $35,910 (undergrad); $36,045 (grad). Costs are the same for both in- and out-of-state residents, international students and include all campuses.
Notable alumni Sicario associate producer Emma McGill, Zootopia animator Zach Parrish
This upstate New York school offers some unique courses of study — like its Drone Workshop and Certificate program and Live Event TV Production class (which uses a remote truck and 360 fly cameras to give students the experience of real-time filmmaking). Its student-run organization, The Studio, has an incubator for entertainment content — providing students with hands-on practice in pitching, developing, greenlighting, fundraising and casting. And its annual Pitch It to Produce It event continues to pay off; a freshman recently won funding from Saw franchise producer Dan Heffner ('78) and she's now in Israel shooting a doc about Palestinian youth. Says How to Get Away With Murder executive producer Bill D'Elia ('69): "I found my creative voice at Ithaca. And I realized I had something to say."
Tuition $42,884 (undergrad)
Notable alumni Bob Iger, David Boreanaz, Emmy-winning writer Chris Regan (Family Guy)
There's a new way to pay for a degree from the nation's premiere visual arts school. Alum Seth MacFarlane ('95) has donated $1.25 million to establish an annual full-ride scholarship that kicks in for the 2017-18 academic year. But wherever the tuition comes from, an education at this art-hipster enclave can have priceless benefits. Director Mary Lambert ('74) remembers hanging out with classmates David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth — who went on to form Talking Heads — and hearing "Burning Down the House" played for the first time. "It was at a birthday party, and they were just jamming," says Lambert, who went on to helm Madonna's iconic "Material Girl" video as well as such features as Pet Sematary. "We didn't even know if this was music. But we knew it was coming out of that artistic process we were all experiencing."
Tuition $48,210 (undergrad)
Notable alumni Martha Coolidge, Gus Van Sant
Moonlight's big Oscar win pushed this small Tallahassee-based program up some spaces on this year's list. Alumnus Barry Jenkins ('03) staffed the production with fellow students he met during grad school. "People ask why we are so close," says Moonlight co-editor Joi McMillon (the first African-American female ever to be nominated in the editing category). "We are such a small school, so there is accountability that is placed on you from the very first project that you do." While FSU emphasizes the basics of storytelling, the school has been adding courses on more forward-looking mediums, such as VR (with new cameras, lab and postproduction facilities, and the hiring of VFX veteran Tom Mikota). All of this comes as a new dean, Reb Braddock, takes over for Frank Patterson, who left last year to run Pinewood Studios in Atlanta.
Tuition Undergrad: $7,545 (in state), $25,239 (out of state); grad: $21,569 (production, in state), $49,982 (production, out of state), $14,859 (writing, in state), $34,432 (writing, out of state)
Notable alumni The Maze Runner director Wes Ball, Alan Ball, It Follows director David Robert Mitchell
ArtCenter grads tend to gravitate toward commercial filmmaking — and the school is more than happy to accommodate them. This year, four students partnered with JW Marriott to create short films that play on a loop throughout its L.A. Live hotel's public spaces, while other students worked on a Volkswagen short that won honors at Cannes. Says veteran commercial director Dinh Thai ('02), who won HBO's inaugural Asian Pacific American Visionaries Short Film Competition in January, "They mold their students into making short pieces so they can get work immediately after graduating." And sometimes even before: The school has arranged for undergraduate Joel Bryant to take a leave of absence to work as a full-time postproduction assistant on Warner Bros.' Justice League.
Tuition $41,408 (undergrad); $43,762 (grad)
Notable alumni Michael Bay, Kong: Skull Island cinematographer Larry Fong, Mirror Mirror director Tarsem Singh
The Bay Area university's School of Cinema is one of its larger undergrad programs, with 1,200 enrolled students (although its highly competitive MFA program accepts only 15 graduate students a year). The wide-ranging curriculum includes 45 production courses, film theory classes and a new spotlight on Women in Film. Alumnus Jonas Rivera, the Oscar-winning producer of Inside Out, remembers being in an animation class at SFSU in the mid-1990s and seeing Luxo Jr. — Pixar's groundbreaking short introducing two animated desk lamps — for the first time. "I had prided myself at the time as a fan of hands-on animation, and I put my nose up at computer animation," he says. "But that short was shown in that class and it just melted me." He was still in school when he landed his first job — an internship at Pixar.
Tuition Undergrad: $7,258 (in state); $19,930 (out of state); grad: $8,692 (in state); $21,364 (out of state)
Notable alumni Documentary filmmaker Arthur Dong, screenwriter Steven Zaillian
Film students at Syracuse's College of Visual and Performing Arts get to intern at two of the world's most significant film festivals: Cannes and Sundance. They also get to minor in such subjects as animation, computer gaming and art photography. But the best part of this upstate New York school may well be its study abroad program, which includes a 10-day summer immersion program in Venice, Italy, a film studies program in Bologna and a chance to study for an entire semester in Prague.
Tuition $45,150 (undergrad); $27,000 (grad)
Notable alumni Aaron Sorkin, Craig Borten (Dallas Buyers Club)
This small film department — at a school best known for fine arts, architecture and design — has grown dramatically since getting its new 15,000-square-foot digs on Pratt's main Brooklyn campus two years ago; enrollment has swelled from 80 students a year to 160. But the teaching philosophy remains unconventional. Students spend their first semester taking courses on things like drawing and sculpting. "I feel very comfortable selling our film program as something completely unique in that students are part of the Pratt Institute," says Jorge Oliver, chair of the undergraduate film program. "We are less track-based. Students have to rotate through different film courses, such as fiction and nonfiction. It creates a very interesting environment."
Tuition $47,986 (undergrad)
Notable alumni David Shirk, who won the visual effects Oscar for Gravity; John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, the filmmaking team behind I Love You Phillip Morris and Crazy, Stupid, Love; Tent City, U.S.A. producer Margaret McCombs
There is indeed a campus in New York — at Battery Place in Manhattan, where acting and filming workshops are held — but if you want an actual BFA or MFA degree, you'll need to enroll at either the school's Burbank campus or its new Miami offshoot. Wherever one attends, the academy's philosophy is to provide practical, hands-on training. In their first year, students write, direct and edit eight projects, and work as crewmembers on an additional 28 projects (Burbank students get to use the nearby Universal lot). "You are working with cameras and shooting things from day one, which is great," says The Gallows director Chris Lofing ('10). Students also get to learn from a roster of high-profile visiting speakers — the past school year saw lectures from Sherry Lansing, Seth Rogen, Mel Gibson and Kevin James.
Tuition $40,542 plus $4,188 equipment fee (undergrad); $39,288 plus $4,188 equipment fee (grad)
Notable alumni Issa Rae (Insecure), producer Raphaela Neihausen (Joe's Violin, nominated for a 2017 Oscar for best documentary short)
L.A. CITY COLLEGE
In-state students can pick up an associate's degree in television or film production for only $1,200 in yearly tuition.
L.A. FILM SCHOOL
Its Hollywood campus has a 3,000-square-foot soundstage and VR and gaming labs. Grads have worked on 22 Emmy-nominated series, including HBO's Big Little Lies and Westworld.
Grads of this Malibu-based university's film program include The Walking Dead producer Denise Huth and action director D.J. Caruso.