The Top 25 American Film Schools

6:00 AM 8/16/2018

by Edited by Benjamin Svetkey

As cultural, social and technological change rock the entertainment industry, these top colleges and universities — from USC to AFI — are training the next generation of cinematic geniuses.

The Top 25 American Film Schools - Illustrations by Simone Massoni- H 2018
Illustration by Simone Massoni

Over the past couple of years, film schools have been gearing up, building VR labs and greenscreen studios and stocking up on 3D stereoscopic cameras. All that technology, though, only makes a difficult decision — where to go to film school — more challenging. When it comes to mastering the cinematic arts, is it better to shoot on ?a 360-degree 3D camera? Or can more be learned from an antique 35mm? Fortunately, THR's annual Top 25 Film Schools list can help. The magazine consulted with educators, industry professionals and alumni and ranked the best of the best based on not just how much tech they have but also the quality of their faculty and facilities, their reputations in the industry and the achievements of their graduates.

Profiles by Borys Kit, Pamela McClintock, Rebecca Sun, Joelle Goldstein, Mia Galuppo, Tatiana Siegel and Brian Porreca.

  • 1. USC

    USC has been churning out great filmmakers since Douglas Fairbanks, Darryl Zanuck and Irving Thalberg were teaching classes there. From James Ivory ('57) to Robert Zemeckis ('73) to Doug Liman?('92) and up to Ryan Coogler ('11) — they all learned how to point ?a camera on this Exposition Park campus. For Ride Along director Tim Story ('91), that history was one of the school's big selling points. "It was my admiration for George Lucas," he explains why he applied, referring to class of 1969's most famous pupil (also most generous; Lucas donated another $10 million last year). "That it was 20 minutes away from?where I [grew up] didn't hurt either." This year, the school got ?a new animation director — Teresa Cheng, who's worked at Warner Bros., DreamWorks and Lucasfilm — and teamed with the State Department to launch the Middle East Media Initiative to support collaborations with filmmakers in Saudi Arabia (which just lifted a 35-year ban on movie theaters). But of all the things USC has going for it — including its master classes (Lisa Kudrow taught one on comedy this year), its state-of-the-art VR Lab and its program for video game designers — the thing that keeps this school on the very top of this list, for the sixth year in a row, is its world-class faculty. Says Planet of the Apes scribe Amanda Silver ('89), "There isn't a day that goes by that I don't refer back to what I learned with those teachers."

    Tuition $55,320 (undergrad); $33,981 to $44,837 (grad) per year

    Alumni John Singleton, Shonda Rhimes

  • 2. New York University

    Since director Cathy Yan graduated just two years ago — with a dual degree in cinema and business, something no other ?film school offers — she's gone on to make the 2018 Sundance darling Dead Pigs and just got hired to direct Marvel's Harley Quinn movie with Margot Robbie. The Handmaid's Tale director Reed Morano ('01) only got one degree but still became the first female director to win a drama Emmy in 22 years, while Mudbound director Dee Rees ('07) got nominated last year for screenwriting and Rachel Morrison ('00) became the first female cinematographer to ?be nominated for an Oscar. Says Alec Baldwin, who graduated from the East Coast's premier film school back in 1993, "New York City is where you go to get serious ?about a career in the arts. Nowhere has as many possibilities as New York. Nowhere. And at the top of that New York list is NYU."

    Tuition $54,352 (undergrad); $58,712 (grad)

    Alumni Billy Crystal, Vince Gilligan, Spider-Man: Homecoming director Jon Watts

  • 3. American Film Institute

    New dean Richard Gladstein has made some small improvements to this bucolic Los Angeles campus (there's now a cafe!) and some big ones, too (hiring Juno producer Lianne Halfon as the head of the producing discipline). But perhaps the most striking transformation has been the school's focus on female filmmakers. This year's class, for the first time, has a 50-50 male-female ratio. There's also a new intensive course for cinematographers that gives 20 female students a tuition-free ride. Female alumnae, meanwhile, continue to make cracks in the glass ceiling, like Rachel Morrison (class of '06, after she got her undergraduate degree at NYU) and Patty Jenkins ('00), who last year became the highest-grossing female director with Wonder Woman. "They were more focused on clarifying what your vision was, and then on whether you were executing it well," Jenkins tells THR of her time as a student. "That is a lesson that needs highlighting in a world of so many cool tools and superficial things."

    Tuition $59,348 to $61,425

    Alumni David Lynch, Ed Zwick, Sam Esmail, Mimi Leder

  • 4. UCLA

    Not everyone's homework assignment gets watched ?by a nationwide audience. But MFA student Steven Canals ('15) sold the pilot he wrote for course 284B (Writing Television Drama Scripts) to Ryan Murphy. Today, that pilot is FX's transgender drama Pose, which was renewed for a second season. And Canals isn't the only one turning schoolwork into a career: Gaia Violo ('15) sold her writing assignment, a pilot for an FBI mystery called Absentia, to Sony's global pay channel AXN (Amazon picked it up for the U.S.), while a group of seven other grad students recently collaborated on Waterschool, a documentary co-produced by jewelry company Swarovski about the world's fresh-water supply, which ended up getting sold to Netflix. Cutting-edge facilities (including an Oculus NextGen VR lab), generous donors (who gave more than $3 million to students this year) and full-ride graduate scholarships (including programs for female students from India and the Arab world) all put UCLA high on this list. "Those three years were invaluable," says Canals. "I wouldn't have a career if it weren't for UCLA."

    Tuition Undergrad $15,775 (in-state), $44,767 (out-of-state); grad ?$16,848 to $28,437 (in-state), $31,950 to $40,682 (out-of-state)

    Alumni Dustin Lance Black, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Frank Marshall, Alexander Payne

  • 5. Columbia University

    It was impossible to attend a film festival this year without bumping into a Columbia grad. Six films made by alumni played at Cannes in May, including HBO's Fahrenheit 451, directed by faculty ?member Ramin Bahrani. No ?fewer than 42 alumni and faculty were represented at Sundance, with movies like Nancy, written ?and directed by Christina Choe ('12) and edited by David Gutnik ('12). Even the school's growing digital storytelling lab, launched just two years ago, had ?a presence in Park City; the ?lab's founder and director, Lance Weiler, premiered an AI version ?of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein ?at Sundance. Meanwhile, back on ?its Upper West Side campus, students have been getting used to the university's newly constructed Lenfest Center for the Arts, which includes a 150-seat state-of-the-art theater, as well as the school's brand-new postproduction center.

    Tuition $60,784 (grad)

    Alumni Kathryn Bigelow, Lisa Cholodenko, Jennifer Lee, Greg Mottola

  • 6. Chapman University

    "We want to be disruptive," says dean Bob Bassett. ?"The most disruptive company today is Netflix, and Ted Sarandos is on my board." If being disruptive means attracting some of the biggest, most powerful names ?in the industry to your campus ?— and not just Sarandos' son, ?who recently graduated, but faculty members like former Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs — then mission accomplished. "Chapman put a camera in our hands on day one and ?we learned how to edit on Avid the first week," say Matt and Ross Duffer (the twin Stranger Things creators both graduated in '07) of their time at the school. "Chapman is always looking toward the future." In the present, three Netflix shows are being produced by Chapman grads: along with ?the Duffers' show, there's Dear White People, created by Justin Simien ('05), and Everything Sucks!, by Michael Mohan and Ben York Jones (both '02).

    Tuition $52,340 (undergrad and grad)

    Alumni Carlos Lopez Estrada, Kelly Galuska, Tara Hernandez, Gabriel Garza

  • 7. California Institute of the Arts

    Not surprisingly, the school ?Walt Disney built is killing it in animation. This year, Adrian Molina ('06) won an Oscar for ?co-directing Coco, while Glen Keane ('74) won best animated ?short for Dear Basketball. Brad Bird ('76) crossed $1 billion at the box office with Incredibles 2, while Hotel Transylvania 3, directed by Genndy Tartakovsky ('92), grossed $340 million worldwide. But of course there's more to the cinematic arts than cartoons, which is why the school continues to push resources into its live-action and cinematography courses, with recent technical upgrades including new digital cameras and boosted network storage. "I had never been in such a creative place," says Andrew Ahn ('11), whose film Spa Night won the 2017 John Cassavetes Independent Spirit Award. "My brain felt like it was rewiring."

    Tuition $48,600 (undergrad and grad)

    Alumni Brenda Chapman, James Mangold

  • 8. Loyola Marymount University

    New dean Peggy Rajski (her ?1994 short, Trevor, won an Oscar) ?is coming aboard just in time ?to christen the school's new Playa Vista campus. The spread includes three flexible studios with greenscreen backdrops, eight Avid editing rooms, a stand-alone ADR/Foley stage and — just like AFI — a new cafe. LMU is also adding another major this year: Film, Television and Media Studies, focusing on theory and academics. And a minor: International Documentary Production, which endeavors to promote social justice through filmmaking. Says Jennifer Castillo Gomez ('11), a ?staff writer on Starz's Vida, "When I track my career, everything I've done goes back to LMU."

    Tuition $47,470 (undergrad); $22,824 (grad)

    Alumni Barbara Broccoli, ?Francis Lawrence, Effie Brown

  • 9. Wesleyan University

    Nobody networks like these grads. Toby Emmerich ('85) recently hosted a Wesleyan day ?at Warner Bros., giving students a private tour of his studio. The Meg director Jon Turteltaub ('85) showed grads clips of his shark tentpole before it hit theaters. A24 acquisition exec David Laub ('03) invited new alumni for a screening ?of Hot Summer Nights. Scribe ?Mark Bomback ('93) got his first job — assistant to Eagles frontman Glenn Frey — thanks to a school connection and then parlayed the gig into a pitch meeting icebreaker. "Everyone wants to know what a rock star's life is like." The program is reeling from founder Jeanine Basinger's imminent retirement, but it'll have a reminder when she's gone: Construction is underway on the Jeanine Basinger wing of the Center for Film Studies. "I started the film major here back in the 1960s, and everyone thought I was crazy," Basinger says. "I am pretty crazy, but starting the film major was not."

    Tuition Undergrad $69,704 to $71,764

    Alumni Michael Bay, ?Matthew Weiner, Paul Weitz, ?Joss Whedon, Lin-Manuel Miranda

  • 10. Emerson

    Students at this small liberal arts college get to spend four weeks in Prague thanks to an exchange program with FAMU, ?one of Europe's top film schools. Or they can spend a semester in Los Angeles, where Emerson has internships with top Hollywood producers, networks and studios. ?But, according to Henry Winkler ('67), the smart ones stay in Boston, where the facilities include a VR lab, audio and postproduction suites, digital production bays and TV production studios. "Emerson can stand on its own against any large university," says the former Fonz (and current Emmy nominee ?for HBO's Barry). "And Boston is small enough to make it on your own but large enough to learn your independence."

    Tuition $46,016 (undergrad); $30,024 (grad)

    Alumni David Cross, Denis Leary, ?Jay Leno, Norman Lear, Kevin Bright

  • 11. University of Texas, Austin

    It's got a motion-capture studio, ?a range of 360-degree, stereoscopic cameras and — because it's Texas — one of the biggest greenscreens outside Hollywood. It's all part of the school's forward-looking initiative to train a ?new generation of filmmakers ?in 3D production. But back in 2D, there's a graduate-level writers room workshop, in which the class partners with a Hollywood showrunner (like Designated Survivor's Scott Shepherd) to write ?a full season of an original series, which then gets shopped to the networks. Soul Food creator Felicia D. Henderson joined the faculty last year, and alumni like BlacKkKlansman producer Ray Mansfield ('00) have returned for industry conversations.

    Tuition Undergrad $11,294 (in-state), $38,972 (out-of-state); grad $9,800 to $11,536 (in-state), $18,448 to $21,832 (out-of-state)

    Alumni Matthew McConaughey, Riverdale writer Britta Lundin, Boyhood producer Cathleen Sutherland

  • 12. Stanford University

    There's a film studies major for undergraduates, which covers all sorts of cinema, but for the prestigious MFA film program, which accepts only eight applicants a year, it's all documentaries, all the time. By the end of the two-year residency, grad students each make 15- to 20-minute docs as their final thesis. Many of them (more than at any other school) go on to win student Oscars and ?end up screening at festivals. "It's ?a soup-to-nuts real-world documentary school," says Jason Sussberg ('10), whose film Bill Nye: ?Science Guy got a theatrical release and was broadcast on PBS. "The program produces filmmakers who can do it all — produce, direct, shoot, edit, distribute."

    Tuition Undergrad $69,704 to $7l,764

    Alumni Ramona Diaz, Leah Wolchok, Davina Pardo

  • 13. DePaul University

    Thanks to Dick Wolf's Chicago Fire franchise, DePaul students are getting plenty ?of on-the-job training. Wolf's ?Windy City-set shows share soundstages with the school at Cinespace Chicago Film Studios, which means that many students "get jobs before they graduate," says DePaul director Gary Novak. There's also DePaul's partnership with Chicago's ?famed Second City, where some ?of the comedy classes are taught. In fact, DePaul is the only film school in the U.S. to hand out MFAs in comedy filmmaking.

    Tuition $39,369 (undergrad); $44,200 to $68,000 (grad)

    Alumni Editor Art O'Leary, cinematographer Brian Lannin, screenwriter Tom Dean

  • 14. Boston University

    Most film schools treat special effects like a garnish, but BU is about to make them into a full meal with an innovative new BFA program in VFX, Animation and Interactive Media. "So many live-action films have VFX and CGI that people aren't even aware of," explains department chair Paul Schneider, who says the degree will start in about two years. Meanwhile, students can opt to spend a semester or summer in L.A. for meetings with industry insiders and participate in the school's just-launched podcast Hollywood Terriers (named after the ?school's mascot). "The film and television program at BU gives students state-of-the-art perspective of what is happening in our industry today," says HBO senior vp development and production Jay Roewe ('79).

    Tuition $53,948 (undergrad); $52,816 (MFA Film and Television Studies); $78,304 (MFA Cinema and Media Production)

    Alumni Jim Gianopulos, Bonnie Hammer, Bonnie Arnold, Joe Roth

  • 15. Ringling College of Art and Design

    Ethan Hawke's Blaze Foley biopic Blaze is the latest project to be shot at Ringling College's Studio Lab, where students had previously received on-the-job training making projects with Kevin Smith ?and Justin Long. This fall, Ringling becomes the first art school to offer a BFA in virtual reality development. The animation department, meanwhile, is still popping champagne corks over Coco's Oscar; 17 alumni worked on the picture.

    Tuition $42,330

    Alumni Crypt TV director of content Evan Gorski, House of Cards' Jessica Pinns

  • 16. Savannah College of Art and Design

    It's the only school on this ?list whose chair will appear on a 2018 Hulu series. But when D.W. Moffett isn't acting in The First (it premieres this fall), he's pushing his campus' TV production initiative. The SCAD-produced sitcom The Buzz won best scripted series at last year's College Television Awards, and this year the school has two more shows in the works. There's also the Savannah Film Festival in October, an increasingly important stop on the fall awards circuit. Last year it drew stars like John Boyega, Salma Hayek, Robert Pattinson, Patrick Stewart, Richard Jenkins and Aaron Sorkin.

    Tuition $36,630 (undergrad); $37,530 (grad)

    Alumni Dear White People's DeRon Horton, Private Life's Kayli Carter

  • 17. Rhode Island School of Design

    Experimentation is the name of the game at the nation's premier visual arts school. "I kind of learned my first things about filmmaking at RISD," remembers Gus Van Sant ('75), who started studying painting before moving ?over to making movies. "A lot ?of people were reinventing themselves there, whether they started in photography or fashion or glass blowing. It's a school that attracts the best of any art field, but once you were in, there was a lot of switching around and rethinking your ideas." Sheri Wills, whose avant-garde films have screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, has taken the reins while department head Dennis Hlynsky is on sabbatical.

    Tuition $49,900 (undergrad)

    Alumni Seth MacFarlane, Mary Lambert, Martha Coolidge

  • 18. Columbia College

    It's working out the kinks of the merger — the ?film and TV schools used to ?be separate — and is only ?now solidifying its interdisciplinary documentary program, which is about to head into its second year. But this year Columbia's semester-in-L.A. ?program is being expanded to ?a full 15 weeks, while overseas opportunities to work in locales like Beijing are also ?being extended. Back on campus, pride is riding high, especially ?in the cinematography department, thanks to that recent Emmy nomination for Christian Sprenger ('07) and his work on GLOW and Atlanta.

    Tuition Undergrad $26,090; grad $35,960 (Creative Producing), $39,572 (Directing)

    Alumni The Chi's Lena Waithe, Kong: Skull Island director ?Jordan Vogt-Roberts ('06)

  • 19. Florida State University

    Director Barry Jenkins ('03) and his Moonlight crew — that's ?cinematographer James Laxton ('03), producer Adele Romanski ('04) and editors Joi McMillon ?('03) and Nat Sanders ('02), along with some fresh FSU recruits — got together again for Jenkins' follow-up, If Beale Street Could Talk, out Nov. 30. But ?even when Jenkins isn't hiring classmates, a degree from ?FSU is gaining more and more traction. Recent grads have landed gigs on TV shows like Stranger Things, Scandal, South Park and The Good Place and at companies like ILM, Marvel and JibJab.

    Tuition Undergrad $6,516 (in-state), $21,683 (out-of-state); grad $21,569 (in-state), $49,982 (out-of-state)

    Alumni Marvel Studios vp production and development Stephen Broussard, Like Father director Lauren Miller Rogen

  • 20. ArtCenter College of Design

    The school where Michael Bay got his MFA is about to get a major face-lift. Plans have been approved by the City Council for a massive expansion that will include a series of eight-story buildings housing a new 300-seat theater, a library, more classrooms and dorm rooms for as many as 1,500 students. Meanwhile, courses ?in directing, editing and cinematography (as well as subjects like 3D cinematography and motion capture) will continue in the old, overcrowded facilities, where ?the emphasis continues to be on commercial filmmaking.

    Tuition $42,816 (undergrad); $45,250 (grad)

    Alumni Zack Snyder, cinematographer Don Burgess, The Vow director Michael Sucsy

  • 21. San Francisco State University

    The undergrad film program ?has ballooned to more than 1,200 students (it had only 800 four years ago), although the much more competitive MFA program keeps the head count to 15 a year. What's attracting more applicants isn't just the school's broad curriculum covering everything from theory to production but also ?its San Francisco-y attitude about filmmaking and creativity. "It's a very open-minded university in an industry that can be regimented," says documentarian Kimberly Reed ('95), whose latest project, Dark ?Money, is currently in theatrical release and will air on PBS' POV ?in October. "That really appealed to me."

    Tuition Undergrad $7,254 (in-state), $8,688 (out-of-state); grad $13,184 (in-state), $14,628 (out-of-state)

    Alumni Jonas Rivera, ?Steve Zaillian, Rich McBride

  • 22. Syracuse University

    One reason to go to Syracuse is to get out of Syracuse; the school has one of the best overseas exchange programs around, offering 10-day immersion sessions in Venice and Bologna, Italy, as well as a full semester of film studies in Prague. For those stuck in chilly upstate New York, there's the Syracuse Film Hub, a professional film studio with its own new 15,000-square-foot soundstage. This year, The Wedding Ringer director Jeremy Garelick moved his production company, American High, to Syracuse, where he's already used the Film Hub — and Syracuse film students — to shoot three features.

    Tuition $46,016 (undergrad); $30,024 (grad)

    Alumni Modern Family EP ?Danny Zuker, Lady Bird producer Lila Yacoub, Pixar Animation Studios president Jim Morris

  • 23. Pratt Institute

    The film school is ?still settling into its new 15,000-?square-foot digs on Pratt's Brooklyn campus (designed by Pratt architecture school graduate Jack Esterson). But at least ?it's putting the funky new 96-seat orange screening room to good use, with the recently launched School of Art lecture series. Werner Herzog kicked off the program in April by showing clips, talking about his childhood in Germany and discouraging students from going to film school ("Whatever I learned, I learned on my own," he told them). Other, presumably more inspirational, speakers: Sam Green, director of The Weather Underground, and two-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Edward Lachman.

    Tuition $49,810 (undergrad)

    Alumni The Post scribe Liz Hannah, Crazy, Stupid, Love filmmakers John Requa and Glenn Ficarra

  • 24. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

    Its Peck School of the Arts film department just started offering a B.A. in animation, building up a department that includes veteran animators Owen Klatte (The Nightmare Before Christmas) and Tim Decker (The Simpsons). The school is also partnering with Oscar winner John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) on a creative hub in Milwaukee, No Studios, where students can rub shoulders with working filmmakers. Student films often get showcased at the growing Milwaukee Film Festival.

    Tuition Undergrad $9,494 (in-state), $19,85 (out-of-state); grad $11,788 (in-state), $24,826 (out-of-state)

    Alumni Empire writer ?Eric Haywood, Robot Chicken's Caroline Kastelic

  • 25. University of Colorado

    In June, it rebranded its film program: It's now the much more impressive-sounding Department of Cinema Studies and Moving Image Arts (but it still offers online degrees). The course curriculum includes the basics — directing, animation, digital cinematography — but Boulder also has study-abroad programs in Paris and Rome and a presence at film festivals like Sundance and Ann Arbor, not to mention hosting its own Boulder International Film Festival in February. Says Lady Bird editor Nick Houy about of the school's push in independent filmmaking: "What makes the school so unique, the emphasis on experimental film, DIY filmmaking, and most importantly film specifically — that is — the celluloid you hold between your fingers, up to the light. CU Boulder truly treats filmmaking as a Fine Art."

    Tuition Undergrad $28,700 (in-state), $53,404 (out-of-state)

    Alumni Lady Bird editor ?Nick Houy, South Park's Matt Stone and Trey Parker

    This story first appeared in the Aug. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.