The Top 25 Film Schools in the United States 2013
USC boasts a new Interactive Media Building; AFI counters it's got James L. Brooks as its new artistic director. In its third annual ranking, THR surveys the nation's top institutions as they compete to turn out Oscar winners.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
See the 2015 List The Top 25 Film Schools in the United States in 2015
See the 2014 List The Top 25 Film Schools in the United States in 2014
See the 2012 List The Top 25 Film Schools in the United States in 2012
See the 2011 List The Top 25 Film Schools in the United States in 2011
Forget about writing the Great American novel. Today's students want to direct the next great blockbuster -- or maybe write the next great art film. To meet that demand, film schools have been beefing up their programs. To reflect the changes, the editors of THR's third annual film school rankings consulted a brain trust of industry insiders, asking them to rate programs nationwide -- serving undergrads, graduate students and, in some cases, both. To broaden the pool of opinion, an online ballot containing potential nominees, which could be filled out and submitted anonymously, was sent to members of the Writers Guild of America West, American Cinema Editors and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. More than 600 ballots were returned, and the responses factored heavily in the final rankings.
1. University of Southern California
With its new 60,250-square-foot Interactive Media Building -- bristling with 4K digital projection, Oblong g-speak gesture-control computing, multitouch screens, a game innovation lab and a mixed reality lab -- USC's School of Cinematic Arts has become a virtual laboratory for future Hollywood talent. SCA has seen other advances during the past year: Bryan Singer gave $5 million for the Bryan Singer Division of Critical Studies. Sumner Redstone donated $10 million for the Sumner M. Redstone Production Building. The school's Interactive Media & Games Division was ranked No. 1 in its field a fourth time by The Princeton Review. Production designer Alex McDowell (Man of Steel, Minority Report, Fight Club), an expert on "world building" -- a science fiction term for creating coherent imaginary universes -- created SCA's World Building Media Lab and 5D Institute. And an Imax theater breaks ground in August on the school's campus, serving undergrads and graduate students, south of downtown L.A. The faculty also gained seven endowed chairs. "It legitimizes all these areas of study," says dean Elizabeth Daley. It also fulfills her motto: "We train people for the future, not the past. But nobody's saying 2D movies and flat screens are going away." Certainly not at USC: Alum Ryan Coogler took the grand jury and audience awards at Sundance for Fruitvale Station, which could go on to bigger awards in the fall; writer Chris Terrio won an Oscar for Argo; and Meera Menon nabbed the Tribeca fest's first Nora Ephron Prize for Farah Goes Bang. One more landmark: Fall 2013 will mark the first time in its history SCA admits more female graduate students than males. That might be the most futuristic development of all.
► Tuition: $45,602 undergraduate; $71,896 two-year master's; $84,968 three-year master's
► Notable Alumni: Ron Howard, Jon Landau, George Lucas
2. American Film Institute
With arguably the highest achievement-to-endowment ratio of any film school, AFI, located in Hollywood, sent five alumni to this year's Oscars -- up from three in 2012 -- and more than 40 to Sundance. Scholarship money for fellows, as the school calls its students, has nearly tripled for next year, and president and CEO Bob Gazzale recruited famed writer-director James L. Brooks (The Simpsons, Terms of Endearment) as AFI's new artistic director. "That's a game-changer," says educator Jeanine Basinger, who created Wesleyan's film program and tracks others nationwide. Brooks is precisely the type of Oscar- and Emmy-winning leader who inspires aspiring filmmakers: He helped the young Wes Anderson, Matt Groening and Cameron Crowe realize their dreams. "AFI is unique," says directing fellow Henry Hughes, who before attending the elite school's first-year "boot camp" had gone through the real thing -- the elite U.S. Army Rangers boot camp -- then to war. "I get more nervous before a shoot than I did before a mission in Afghanistan," he says. "There's more weight on your shoulders -- I'm being judged individually on my artistic integrity. I could sleep through a mortar attack, but I can't sleep the night before a shoot." Despite the butterflies, Hughes is doing fine: He's in a program that matched him with mentor George Lucas. Says Gazzale, "AFI is an elite, intense two-year graduate program, and 80 percent of alumni are working in the industry."
► Tuition: $43,904 first year; $52,509 second year
► Notable Alumni: Darren Aronofsky, David Lynch, Terrence Malick
3. New York University
Seven alumni and one faculty member from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, located in Manhattan, were invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences this year. And the website Ranker, after tallying the alma maters of the makers behind the 500 best films of all time, ranked NYU No. 1. The school is noted for its MBA/MFA program, its new gaming MFA and graduates like 2013 Oscar winner Ang Lee. NYU gave alum Oliver Stone an honorary doctorate in May. "With a rookie's luck, I got this nutcase New Yorker, with long hair down to his shoulders, as my teacher in our first-year production course," he remembered. "He was totally distracted, never seemed to sleep, talking a mile a minute. Sometimes you didn't know what he was saying, but you sure were dazzled by it because this guy loved film, and he conveyed that to us. That guy, of course, turned out to be Martin Scorsese, but back then he was just Marty, and it was just crazy fun."
► Tuition: $49,237 undergraduate; $50,632 graduate
► Notable Alumni: Joel Coen, Charlie Kaufman
4. University of California, Los Angeles
From its home in Westwood, UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television has spun off galaxies of film artists: Francis Ford Coppola, Jayne Mansfield and her daughter Mariska Hargitay, Gore Verbinski, Alexander Payne and Justin Lin. But for a big place that casts a vast shadow, UCLA also is intimate. One indie cinema insider says it beats other top-tier schools: "Students get more personal attention from the department's heavy hitters. Projects are nurtured, and they come out with stronger storytelling, directing and writing skills. Kids from UCLA seem more satisfied with the experience." Dean Teri Schwartz innovates relentlessly, as with the new MFA performance programs in which actors, directors and playwrights share a curriculum; a comparably interdisciplinary MFA; and 2013's student-made TV pilot Doubleblind, on which Rod Holcomb (who had a hand in the ER and China Beach pilots) served as an adviser. Doubleblind, which centers on a genetics experiment, was itself an experiment that brought together students from writing, acting, directing, producing, cinematography, costume design, production design and music. Says Schwartz, "It's the first project of its kind, unique to any film or theater school in the world."
► Tuition: $23,748 to $29,295 undergraduate ($46,626 to $52,173 out-of-state); $15,288 graduate ($30,390 out-of-state)
► Notable Alumni: Dustin Lance Black, Jack Black, Shane Black, Tim Robbins, George Takei
5. California Institute of the Arts
Art school grads are supposed to be penurious, but at Valencia's CalArts, films made by alums have grossed more than $25 billion. The Los Angeles Times called it "the Harvard Business School of animation." Three of nine student films in the Telluride Film Festival's most recent Filmmakers of Tomorrow program were by CalArtians, and three of this year's Academy Award nominees for animated feature were by alums. CalArts also was represented heavily at the New York Film Festival, the Whitney Museum Biennial, Sundance (where Yung Jake was tabbed a breakout art star by LA Weekly) and PBS' recent Film School Shorts series. Alumni cover the waterfront from pop culture to high culture: As James Mangold's The Wolverine headed for the multiplex, Erika Vogt has had big shows at Manhattan's New Museum and L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art.
► Tuition: $39,976 undergraduate
► Notable Alumni: Tim Burton, Brad Bird, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton