The Hollywood Reporter grades the colleges and universities — from USC to Yale — turning out the next generation of moviemakers.
Learning to become a filmmaker used to be much simpler: All you needed was a 16mm camera, a few scraps of film stock and an inspirational teacher. But these days, film schools are considered useless unless they offer state-of-the-art augmented reality labs, high-end digital Steadicams and at least one course taught by James Franco — all of which makes applying to these institutions more confusing than ever before.
To help, THR presents its sixth annual ranking of the 25 best U.S. film schools (and a list of 15 of the best foreign film schools). As always, the magazine assembled the list by consulting with academic experts, industry professionals and scores of film school alumni.
Reporting by Ashley Cullins, Rebecca Ford, Mia Galuppo, Borys Kit, Kendal McAlpin, Pamela McClintock, Brian Porreca, Tatiana Siegel and Rebecca Sun.
See the 2015 List The Top 25 Film Schools in the United States 2015
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
If classes like World Cinema — which explores the "coexistence of globalization and the persistence of national identities" — are your cup of tea, then Yale is the school for you. Its film program also boasts impressive partnerships: You can study abroad at the Czech Republic's FAMU. And while James Franco doesn't teach any courses, he plans to get his Ph.D. here.
NOTABLE ALUMNI New York magazine film critic Bilge Ebiri, The New York Times film critic Wesley Morris
Tucked away in Tallahassee, Fla., FSU recently unveiled a 5,000-square-foot visual effects lab and will launch a VR storytelling curriculum in 2017. Some alumni feel the school's greatest asset is its remoteness. "You're out of New York or Los Angeles, so you have pure instruction and pure filmmaking," says Spotlight exec producer Jonathan King ('92). "Florida State is a conservatory. You get away and create."
NOTABLE ALUMNI The Maze Runner director Wes Ball, It Follows director David Robert Mitchell
(Pictured: Syracuse students take part in a combined Film Production and Italian Studies program in Bologna, Italy.)
Upstate New York's other film school also focuses on international filmmaking, with exchange programs in Bosnia, Peru and Italy (where students get to work with the great Bernardo Bertolucci). It also has a strong presence on the festival circuit, sending students for internships at Cannes and Sundance.
Says alum and Princess and the Frog screenwriter Rob Edwards, “Barely a day goes by when I don't think about the principles I learned as a film student at Syracuse. Many schools focus on theory but Syracuse puts it into action. I made 6 films during my Freshman year and the practical experiences made me fearless and eager to take on the challenges of the hyper-competitive Entertainment Industry.”
NOTABLE ALUMNI Pixar's Jim Morris, producer Thom Oliphant, Coraline director Henry Selick
A $2 million grant from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is helping spruce up this San Fernando Valley campus — half the money is being used to update equipment and facilities. The school also is fighting the good fight for diversity, devoting the other half to scholarships for students from underrepresented populations.
NOTABLE ALUMNI Actress Joan Chen, My Cousin Vinny writer Dale Launer, Screen Gems production president Glenn Gainor
In 2014, it had 800 undergrad and graduate students; this year, enrollment has ballooned to 1,200. But its masters programs remain exclusive: Only 15 students are admitted each year for MFAs and only 10 for MAs. "My favorite experience at SFSU was walking around the city with a 16mm Bolex and only a loose idea of what I wanted to film," recalls Ethan Van der Ryn ('85), who went on to become sound editor for the Transformers and The Lord of the Rings franchises.
NOTABLE ALUMNI Steve Zaillian, producer Jonas Rivera (Inside Out)
(Pictured: Students at Pasadena's ArtCenter College of Design set up a shot.)
It's one of the few schools that lets students retain rights to the work they make on campus. "The school doesn't baby you," says filmmaker Saman Kesh ('11), attached to direct Cube at Lionsgate and Controller at Fox. "It's like a mini-industry when you're there." ArtCenter recently signed a partnership with China's Huace Group for a $300,000 scholarship fund, and it's adding augmented reality facilities to a new Immersive Media Lab in spring 2017.
NOTABLE ALUMNI Michael Bay, Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary, The Vow director Michael Sucsy
It's an arts school — arguably the arts school — so it's hardly surprising that half of the film program's students focus on animation. A partnership with Laika, the Oregon studio that made the Oscar-nominated film Coraline, has turned the school into a pipeline to Hollywood animation studios.
NOTABLE ALUMNI Seth MacFarlane, Gus Van Sant, Martha Coolidge
Come to upstate New York and see the world. Ithaca offers students more semester-abroad options than just about anybody — you can study in London, New York, Los Angeles and now Cuba. Three students are in Brazil, assisting NBC Sports as it broadcasts the Rio Olympics. Back on campus, the new Innovation Lab, filled with 3D printers and eye-tracking devices, is set to open in the fall. "My best friends in L.A. are IC grads," says TLC president Nancy Daniels ('94). "They've become my West Coast family."
NOTABLE ALUMNI Bob Iger, David Boreanaz, producer Bill D'Elia
The only school on this list that produces its own streaming sitcom; every quarter a new episode of The Buzz — about a bunch of college grads hanging out in a coffee shop — gets produced, directed, edited by a different set of students and streamed on the school's website. The show is produced at SCAD's new 22,000-square-foot filmmaking complex, but the school also has a digital media center in Atlanta. "It had such a rounded curriculum — you could just bounce around," says video editor Alex Hammer ('06). "It was an entire visual effects program."
NOTABLE ALUMNI Sicario associate producer Emma McGill, Zootopia animator Zach Parrish
(Pictured: Dylan McDermott (left) directed his web series, with DP Nick Morgulis, at Ringling College of Art & Design.)
The youngest film school on this list — the 48-acre Sarasota, Fla., campus launched its film program in 2007 — it will open in December a 30,000-square-foot soundstage and postproduction complex, the Gulf Coast's first such professional film facility. And Ringling's Studio Lab program, a partnership with Semkhor Networks, continues to lure talent, collaborating with directors like Kevin Smith, who will shoot his next film on location there in November.
NOTABLE ALUMNI Oscar-winning animator Patrick Osborne, YouTube star Michelle Phan
The largest film school in the U.S., offering about 200 specialized courses, is located 2,000 miles from Hollywood. But that's a plus, according to Eric Freedman, the new dean of Columbia's School of Media Arts. "Our students engage with and learn from one of the nation's most dynamic media ecosystems — Chicago." A few other pluses: There's a $100,000 annual fund for student films, a partnership with the Beijing Film Academy and — in Hollywood — a five-week studio immersion program.
NOTABLE ALUMNI Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, The Lego Movie editor Chris McKay, Barbershop producer George Tillman Jr.
This small school in a picturesque patch of Winston-Salem is transforming into a cutting-edge tech hub. This fall, it's offering a new track in immersive entertainment and augmented reality as students create a VR movie with help from Jacquie Barnbrook, producer of The Martian VR Experience. In 2015, the school completed its 30,000-square-foot digital media building, housing state-of-the-art equipment for digital design, gaming, animation and effects. Enrollment has skyrocketed, up nearly 37 percent compared with 2015.
NOTABLE ALUMNI Vice Principals creators (and UNCSA classmates) David Gordon Green, Jody Hill and Danny McBride
The film program got new digs this year: It has taken over a 3,000-square-foot space on Babcock Street that used to store dorm-room mini-fridges and transformed it into a production beehive for cinematography and directing classes. The university picked up the bill for the renovations, and Chinese venture capitalist Hugo Shong provided cash for a slew of state-of-the-art cameras and other equipment.
BU also is known for its outpost in L.A., on Wilshire Boulevard, where 200 students come to learn from industry pros. "BU is about finding yourself as a filmmaker," says director Henry Hughes ('06), who got an Oscar nomination for his 2015 short Day One.
NOTABLE ALUMNI Lauren Shuler Donner, Bonnie Arnold, Joe Roth, Nina Tassler
This MFA program focuses on documentaries and only documentaries. And now, thanks to the new $85 million McMurtry Building — home to the Department of Art & Art History, where the program resides — every student gets his or her own editing room. Not such a tight squeeze, considering only eight MFA applicants are accepted to the program each year.
The intimacy tends to keep students bonded for life. "Six years after graduating, I still work closely with my classmates," says Jason Sussberg ('10), co-director of the upcoming The Bill Nye Film.
NOTABLE ALUMNI Leah Wolchok (Very Semi-Serious), Mike Attie and Meghan O'Hara (In Country), Mark Becker (Art and Craft, Pressure Cooker)
Where else can you learn at the feet of Matthew McConaughey? "In the Script to Screen class, students get to follow the journey of a film I'm working on through a semester," says the Oscar-winning actor ('93), who delivers lectures on campus and through recorded videos. "Students become privy to the choices and changes we make during the process."
Aspiring writers participate in a writers room workshop, with their scripts shopped around to network and cable outlets. Plus there's the Austin Film Festival. All right, all right, all right!
NOTABLE ALUMNI Director-producers Mark and Jay Duplass, DreamWorks Animation's Jennifer Howell, Sony Pictures Classics' Michael Barker
For a school in Boston, it has great industry connections. Its internship program is super-aggressive, placing students with Hollywood producers, networks and studios. New Regency production president Pamela Abdy ('95) did her internship at Jersey Films then landed a gig as the company's receptionist.
"The internship program gave me access to Hollywood," she says. "And honestly, being from New Jersey, I had no Hollywood connections whatsoever." Emerson also has a satellite campus in Hollywood, which recently upgraded to cool digs on Sunset Boulevard. But back in Back Bay, the college that graduated Jay Leno and Norman Lear launched a BFA program in comedic arts in 2015.
NOTABLE ALUMNI DreamWorks' Holly Bario, Sony's Andrea Giannetti, Viacom's Doug Herzog
Wesleyan's College of Film and the Moving Image is a liberal arts college as much as it is a film school, meaning students are not only educated in the practical side of filmmaking but also steeped in critical and historical analysis. Beloved faculty icon Jeanine Basinger all but invented the discipline of film studies — and we mean discipline. "We were not allowed to be late — if you were late for her class, she locked the door," recalls The Purge franchise producer Brad Fuller ('87). Adds Chuck & Buck director Miguel Arteta ('89), "Jeanine puts into your mind that your own greatest weapon is the screwy way you see the world." Other teachers at the Middletown, Conn., school include The New York Times film critic A.O. Scott and A24 executive David Laub.
NOTABLE ALUMNI Michael Bay, Akiva Goldsman, Alex Kurtzman, Matthew Weiner, D.B. Weiss, Paul Weitz, Joss Whedon
(Pictured: A student production at Loyola Marymount University.)
Producer Effie Brown ('93) couldn't get in to LMU's School of Film and Television, so she enrolled as a theater major but then cornered the film dean and begged him to let her switch.
"He said, 'You had me when you started talking about your heart,' " recalls the Project Greenlight star. The school, based in Westchester, Calif., remains smallish — 12 students per teacher — but its curriculum continues to grow. It's launching a facility in neighboring Silicon Beach and new certificate programs in documentary and digital storytelling and media.
NOTABLE ALUMNI Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Parts 1 and 2 director Francis Lawrence, American Horror Story producer James Wong, Bond producer Barbara Broccoli
There's a reason Ted Sarandos, Steve Mosko, AMC's Ed Carroll and even Hugh Hefner have sent their children to this school — and it's not only because the Orange County campus is close to home. Chapman's Dodge College of Film and Media Arts is equipped with a $42 million, 76,000-square-foot facility designed by Bastien and Associates, the same firm that has built soundstages for Paramount, DreamWorks, Universal and Warner Bros. Say Matt and Ross Duffer ('07), who recently hit it big with the Netflix horror series Stranger Things: "The kids are smart and passionate. And it's not too pretentious — our senior thesis was about a shape-shifting cannibal, and the students and faculty loved it."
NOTABLE ALUMNI Dear White People director Justin Simien, BoJack Horseman staff writer Kelly Galuska
Naturally, the school Walt Disney built in Valencia, Calif. — he introduced it to the public in 1964 by screening a short during the premiere of Mary Poppins — is famous for producing top-notch animators. In February, Pete Docter ('90) became the latest to pick up an Oscar, for Inside Out.
But cartoonists aren't the only ones who go there: Zackary Drucker ('07) and Rhys Ernst ('11), co-producers on Amazon's Emmy-winning series Transparent, are CalArtians (yes, that's what they call themselves). "I wish I could go back," muses Jorge R. Gutierrez ('98), the Mexico-born director of animated movie The Book of Life. "To be surrounded by such diverse and incredible talent was inspiring." This fall, students can be inspired by One Act to Cinematic Event, a class James Franco has taught at CalArts for about five years.
NOTABLE ALUMNI John Lasseter, Brad Bird, Kirby Dick, Tim Burton, Brenda Chapman (co-director of Brave and the first woman to win an Oscar for an animated feature)
Without Columbia's MFA program, celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2016, Making a Murderer would not have happened. The crime doc series was hatched a decade ago when two graduate students — Moira Demos ('08) and Laura Ricciardi ('07) — began tracking the Steven Avery case.
When they went on to make the show for Netflix in spring 2015, they chose one of their former professors, film program chair Maureen Ryan, to serve as production adviser. "Columbia is so focused on story, character and narrative — it played a major role in helping us turn thousands of hours of footage into something a layperson could follow," says Demos. Other faculty moonlight for Netflix as well, including Frank Pugliese, who in February was promoted to co-showrunner on House of Cards.
NOTABLE ALUMNI Nicole Holofcener, James Mangold, James Ponsoldt
There was grumbling when the undergraduate film program shifted from a two-year to a four-year program in 2014, but UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television remains the first choice for a huge number of aspiring filmmakers (only 2 percent of undergraduate applicants are accepted). Part of the reason is its free-spirited approach to filmmaking, encouraging students — and graduates — to experiment.
When Francis Ford Coppola ('67) recently came up with his Live Cinema concept — a combination of live theater, film and TV performed in front of an audience — he tested it at his alma mater, with 75 students as his crew. And when Courtney Marsh ('09) came up with the idea of "traveling to a foreign country and filming a documentary in a language I didn't speak" — that would be her 2015 Oscar-nominated short Chau, Beyond the Lines, about a 16-year-old Vietnamese boy disabled by Agent Orange — UCLA guided her as she planned her trip.
"They even helped me in getting the funds," she says. When not lecturing at USC or NYU, James Franco sometimes teaches here as well.
NOTABLE ALUMNI Frank Marshall, Justin Lin, Dustin Lance Black, George Takei
NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, the best, most prestigious American film school east of the Hudson River, is alma mater to such cinematic heavyweights as Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone and M. Night Shyamalan. Ang Lee ('82), after studying drama at the University of Illinois, arrived on the NYC campus barely speaking English but discovered the universal language of 16mm.
"Making movies was easier than every other thing I did in America. It's just sight and sound; I could speak broken English and make it work," says the director, who in November will release his experimental 120-frames-per-second film Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. NYU students create more than 5,000 movies a year — some on old-school celluloid — and can pick the brains of David Fincher, Sofia Coppola and scores of other A-list filmmakers as part of the recently launched Chair's Workshops series. James Franco not only sometimes teaches here, it's also where he got his MFA.
NOTABLE ALUMNI Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Cary Fukunaga, Joel Coen, Colin Trevorrow
AFI made history at this year's Student Academy Awards, becoming the first school to sweep the medals — gold, silver and bronze — in the narrative category. It can add those to the pile of trophies its alumni have collected during the past year, including prizes at the Cannes and Venice film festivals, and display them in the school's newly renovated library on its woodsy campus overlooking Hollywood.
AFI's efforts toward gender equality also are awards-worthy: In 2015, for the first time, the incoming class for the directors program included more female students than male. The school's editing track is getting a boost with the hiring of Oscar nominee Matt Chesse, and students' thesis films are guaranteed distribution through AFI.com, where they are available for rental or purchase. "The biggest lesson I learned at AFI was the challenge of executing a vision that you have to defend and get other people to collaborate on," says Patty Jenkins ('00), director of Warner Bros.' upcoming Wonder Woman. Jenkins' AFI thesis, by the way? A female superhero movie.
NOTABLE ALUMNI Darren Aronofsky, David Lynch, Terrence Malick
(Pictured: Jay Roach (left) and special projects manager David Nelson at the MxR Mixed Reality Lab at USC.)
USC's School of Cinematic Arts has been around since 1929, but THR's No. 1 film school — for a fourth consecutive year — always is one step ahead of its time. These days USC is betting big on virtual and augmented reality, with VR content company Jaunt announcing in January that it would fund a VR incubator at the school. The Jaunt Cinematic Virtual Reality Lab, under construction next door to the Zemeckis Center, will be home to courses like Directing in the Virtual World (taught by Oscar-winning visual effects artist Michael Fink).
But the school is ahead of the curve in other ways as well, pushing Hollywood toward diversity: In October it received a $10 million endowment, partly from alum George Lucas ('67), earmarked for financial support for students from underrepresented communities. Says The Birth of a Nation producer Jason Michael Berman ('06), who teaches a course, "Filmmakers from diverse backgrounds have really incredible and important stories to tell, so to be able to offer those students these scholarships is going to be amazing and so important." USC's location — in Exposition Park — also keeps the school on top, providing easy access to many of the best brains in the business … and James Franco, who teaches one of his far-flung film courses here.
NOTABLE ALUMNI Judd Apatow, John August, Susan Downey, Kevin Feige, Doug Liman, Shonda Rhimes, Bryan Singer, John Wells