The Top 25 American Film Schools, Ranked

6:45 AM 8/15/2019

by Trilby Beresford, Tara Bitran, Kirsten Chuba, Mia Galuppo, Katie Kilkenny, Pamela McClintock, Tatiana Siegel, and Rebecca Sun

The Hollywood Reporter hands out the annual grades to the colleges and universities — from USC to NYU — that are molding the entertainment industry's next generation of geniuses.

THR-Top 25 Film Schools-Illustration by Nathan Hackett-H 2019
Nathan Hackett

In the years The Hollywood Reporter has been ranking film schools — this is the eighth list, determined by extensive interviewing and research — the magazine has never received a straight answer to one very straightforward question: What is the purpose of film school?

Pretty much every institution on this list sees it differently. For some, like No. 6 Wesleyan (up from No. 9 last year), where cinema scholar Jeanine Basinger is getting her own building on the campus next year, it's all about history, subtext and auteur theory. For others, the focus is hands-on experience, providing students with access to everything from old-fashioned 16mm cameras to state-of-the-art 3D VR labs to the jumbo-size greenscreens at University of Texas (down one place to No. 12 this year). Still, there is one purpose that academics at just about every type of school — from tiny rural colleges to lofty big-city conservatories — agree on. "We can be the sandbox that everybody experiments in," says Susan Ruskin, new dean of No. 4, AFI (down from No. 3 last year). "We can say [to the studios], 'Come play with us, because this is the generation that is going to be creating content.'"

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    The recent college admissions scandal wasn't a great look for USC, but at least the film school escaped relatively unscathed, with nobody's parents getting arrested for bribing or cheating their way in. In fact, dean Elizabeth Daley had a terrific year — terrific enough to land the 90-year-old institution at No. 1 for the seventh year in a row — as she reeled in yet another fat donation ($20 million from a trust in honor of late Columbia Pictures TV president John H. Mitchell, on top of that $10 million check George Lucas wrote in 2017) and launched a slew of new programs (like a podcasting seminar taught by The Producer's Guide's Todd Garner). Universal chief Donna Langley joined the school's board this year, West Wing producer John Wells (class of '82) brought his popular Writers Guild showrunning class to USC and a slew of graduates ended up at the Oscars, including class of 2011's Ryan Coogler for Black Panther and class of 2016's Rayka Zehtabchi, who won for best documentary short. "I mean, she just got out!" says Daley. "But there were USC alums from every generation at last year's Academy Awards." Daley also instituted a new mandatory class in diversity, but progress in that area already can be seen on USC's Exposition Park campus. Producer Melissa Rosenberg (Marvel's Jessica Jones) says that when she graduated from the producing program in 1990, she was one of only four women in a class of 25. The incoming producing-class ratio is 17 females to seven males. Still, Rosenberg returns to school two or three times a year to give female students encouragement. "I like to let them know that, yes, it is possible."

    TUITION $57,256 (undergrad); $35,214 to $51,622 (graduate)

    ALUMNI Robert Zemeckis, Doug Liman, Tim Story, John Singleton, Shonda Rhimes

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    This fall, NYU is going Hollywood, opening its first permanent L.A. campus — a hub of classrooms and dorms near the La Brea Tar Pits — which should heat up its long-simmering rivalry with USC. But part of the allure of this renowned 54-year-old auteur factory has always been its hipster home base — Greenwich Village — which tends to attract more indie-minded artists. "Of course, NYU might not have the [facilities of] USC, because we don't make those big-budget Zemeckis films," Spike Lee (class of '82) snarkily told The Hollywood Reporter during a roundtable before winning his first Oscar this year. "We just [have] Martin Scorsese." But now, NYU, where Lee serves as artistic director of the Graduate Film Program, will soon open the doors on facilities that indeed rival USC's; a performance center is being included at the 181 Mercer St. building (projected to be complete in 2021) that will be the largest structure on NYU's campus.

    TUITION $55,928 (undergrad); $60,766 (graduate)

    ALUMNI Alec Baldwin, Elizabeth Olsen, Miles Teller, Dee Rees, Rachel Bloom

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    Terri Schwartz's term as dean is coming to an end, and UCLA hasn't yet announced if her contract's being renewed. But a recent $20 million donation from the Mitchell trusts (the same fund that gave $20 million to USC) counts in her favor. Half the money will go to scholarships, the other half to fund the UCLA Film & Television Archive, the largest university-based media library in the world. And the school continues to churn out class after class of top-notch screenwriters, most recently Pose creator Steven Canals ('15) and Gaia Violo ('15), whose student project Absentia became an Amazon series. Add up the worldwide box office grosses for films that UCLA grads had a hand in making during the past year — A Star Is Born, The Lego Movie 2 and Spider-Man: Into the SpiderVerse, to name a few — and you're talking nearly $6 billion. But beyond all that, Love & Basketball director Gina Prince-Bythewood (class of '91) offers another reason for attending: "I was never afraid to try. It was an incredibly safe space to fail."

    TUITION $16,246 (undergrad, in-state); $46,000 (undergrad, out-of-state); $29,520 (graduate, in-state); $41,765 (graduate out-of-state)

    ALUMNI Ava DuVernay, Alex Gibney, Marielle Heller, David Koepp, Frank Marshall

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    This time last year, the American Film Institute was introducing a new dean, producer Richard Gladstein, after a faculty revolt pushed filmmaker Jan Schuette from the job. This year, AFI is at it again, introducing another new dean, Susan Ruskin, formerly of University of North Carolina School of Arts' film department (see No. 11). Despite these leadership shifts, the institution offers a first-rate program, with a stellar faculty (this year, Black List founder Franklin Leonard joined the ranks, teaching a new class on the history and future of the Hollywood franchise) and a pragmatic, hands-on approach to learning filmmaking. "It was perfect for me," says Ari Aster (class of 2010), director of Midsommar and Hereditary. "AFI prizes practice over theory." The school could do better with minority scholarships, but it has made strides in recruiting female leaders (Kathleen Kennedy just joined the board as chair) and in gender diversity: Next year's graduating class will be 55 percent female.

    TUITION $61,425 to $63,575

    ALUMNI Patty Jenkins, David Lynch, Ed Zwick, Sam Esmail, Mimi Leder

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    Columbia University

    Columbia's MFA program — it doesn't offer an undergrad degree — has always focused on three things: story, story and story. But recently, the uptown Ivy League institution has been putting more emphasis on the production side of filmmaking, adding new cameras and lenses to its sprawling two-year-old production center north of the university. Says screenwriter and faculty member Hilary Brougher, "We're really proud that we produce people who will make blockbusters and people who will make films that win at film festivals." Those in the former category include Simon Kinberg, while in the latter there's Rob Richert ('13), whose Sundance film The Last Black Man in San Francisco opened June 7 and has grossed a stellar $4 million-plus to date. Brougher herself got in on the act, with her film, South Mountain, showing at SXSW.

    TUITION $62,912 (graduate)

    ALUMNI Kathryn Bigelow, James Mangold, Jennifer Lee, Moira Demos, Kahane Cooperman

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    Wesleyan University

    Looks like Jeanine Basinger — the renowned scholar who started the film program in the 1960s and who has been rumored to be on the verge of retirement for years — will be sticking around long enough to see the opening of The Basinger Center for Film Studies. The newly renamed and renovated space is getting an additional 16,000 square feet, including a new soundstage and cinema. But it turns out Basinger, 83, isn't the only beloved longtime professor at the school. Says Warner Bros. film chief Toby Emmerich ('85): "Richard Slotkin's 'Western Movies: Myth, Ideology and Genre' was pound for pound the best class I ever took. I obviously can't speak for Michael Bay ['86] or Joss Whedon ['87], but when I watch their stuff, I feel like I see a lot of Slotkin learning in there."

    TUITION $72,758 to $74,908 (undergrad)

    ALUMNI Akiva Goldsman, D.B. Weiss, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jon Turteltaub, Jenno Topping

  7. 7

    Chapman University

    Retiring dean Bob Bassett has been great at raising money and drawing Hollywood talent to the school's Anaheim-adjacent campus. Taste in campus art has been problematic (a 1915 Birth of a Nation poster finally was taken down in April after two years of complaints), but the college added VR and AR minors to its course work and, this fall, it'll host producer Bill Gerber (A Star Is Born) as filmmaker-in-residence. "The on-campus atmosphere is extremely down-to-earth," notes veteran producer Michael Phillips (The Sting, Taxi Driver), who taught at Chapman and remains a member of the school's advisory board. "Learning to make films is presented as a joy rather than a high Olympian art."

    TUITION $54,540 (undergrad); $45,124 (graduate)

    ALUMNI Matt and Ross Duffer, Justin Simien, Carlos Lopez Estrada

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    Loyola Marymount University

    The just-opened Playa Vista campus — which includes three greenscreen studios, eight Avid editing rooms and a Foley stage — was only the beginning. Next year, new dean Peggy Rajski breaks ground on the Howard B. Fitzpatrick Pavilion, a 25,000-square-foot structure equipped with a screening theater, a camera-teaching stage and a motion-capture workspace. Rajski (who won a short film Oscar in 1995) also has struck up a partnership with Village Roadshow for a program in which five graduates each get $10,000 to produce a short. Says Shay Hatten ('16), co-writer of John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, "My first script that got me representation grew out of a writing exercise for one of my classes there. [LMU] provides a framework to generate a lot of material that doesn't have to be great. Slowly, you improve."

    TUITION $49,550 (undergrad); $39,720 (graduate)

    ALUMNI Barbara Broccoli, Emily Spivey, Patricia Whitcher

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    You can go to CalArts to study dance, theater, film or video, but the real action at the school Walt Disney co-founded is, of course, animation. This is where John Lasseter ('79) studied before becoming creative head of Pixar (he's now at Skydance)…and where Pete Docter ('90) learned his craft before taking over Lasseter's job. The school is in something of a holding pattern as everyone waits to see what plans the new provost, Tracie Costantino, has for the campus, but infrastructure might be a good place to start: Some say the facilities could use modernizing. Even so, CalArts continues to produce animators of every stripe, from stop-motion masters like Henry Selick ('77) to CG wizards like Andrew Stanton ('87) to hand-drawn traditionalists like Gary Trousdale ('82). A more recent graduate, Gravity Falls creator Alex Hirsch ('07), just signed a fat first-look deal with Netflix.

    TUITION $50,850 (undergrad); $40,720 (graduate)

    ALUMNI Tim Burton, Brad Bird, Brenda Chapman, James Mangold

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    Emerson College

    It may look like a small liberal arts college, but it's actually a sprawling international network of film school partnerships. The latest is a collaboration with the Paris College of Art that will allow 25 students to get a film degree while taking a grand tour of European campuses that includes a castle in the Netherlands. "We just started the program this summer," says dean Rob Sabal. "It's an idea that comes from an overall global initiative at Emerson." Those stuck back in Beantown can console themselves with the school's newly renovated facilities, which include studio space for AR, VR and 3D modeling. But the best thing about Emerson? According to What We Do in the Shadows writer Stefani Robinson ('14), it's the school spirit. "After class, before class, on the weekends — we were constantly there," she says of the school's on-campus theater. "I remember it feeling like a really exciting time, like I was absorbing films in a totally different way."

    TUITION $48,560 (undergrad); $20,416 to $30,624 (graduate)

    ALUMNI Norman Lear, Adele Lim, Henry Winkler, Iliza Shlesinger

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    University of North Carolina School of the Arts

    This tiny Southern film school — 890 undergrads, 152 grads — just lost its dean to AFI (see No. 4), but it still has the 30,000-square-foot New Media Building that Ruskin helped install on campus that houses the school's departments of animation, production, motion capture, gaming, digital design and visual effects. Two new MFA programs were recently added — producing and screenwriting — while undergrads still learn to shoot on 16mm. According to Hearts Beat Loud director Brett Haley ('05), the school's biggest selling point is its size. "You're in this small town and you're surrounded by other artists and you're just focused on that," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. "We were left to our own devices — if we failed, we failed, if we succeeded, we succeeded."

    TUITION $23,040 (undergrad, out-of-state); $23,203 (graduate, out-of-state)

    ALUMNI David Gordon Green, Peter Hedges, Travis Beacham

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    University of Texas

    Matthew McConaughey's alma mater has a new chair — Noah Isenberg, author of a 2017 best-seller about Casablanca, among other books — who'll soon be teaching courses on Billy Wilder, film noir and screwball comedy. Production designer Adriana Serrano (Jill Soloway's Afternoon Delight) also has joined the faculty, while the school's guest speaker series has been featuring lectures by industry experts like BlacKkKlansman producer Raymond Mansfield and Gaylyn Fraiche, vp, film and TV at Reese Witherspoon's Hello Sunshine. The facilities are impressive and include a high-tech production studio and a greenscreen larger than anything found in between the coasts. "Everything you need is here: the education, the tools, the creative city of Austin as a canvas," gushes McConaughey, who often returns to teach. "All you need to do is bring your point of view."

    TUITION $10,314 to $11,852 (undergrad, in-state); $36,716 to $42,082 (undergrad, out-of-state); $10,848 (graduate, in-state); $17,312 (graduate, out-of-state)

    ALUMNI Marcia Gay Harden, Mark and Jay Duplass, Wes Anderson

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    Florida State University

    Barry Jenkins and his crew of schoolmates put FSU on the map with Moonlight, but they aren't the only successful graduates. Lauren Miller Rogen ('03), writer and director of Netflix's Like Father, credits the school with teaching her pretty much everything she knows. By graduation, she says, "not only had I written, directed and produced four short films — on which I didn't spend a single dime of my own money — I had crewed on more than 50 short films as a DP, production designer, gaffer, editor and even boom operator." She adds that FSU alumni stick together, even when not making a Barry Jenkins movie. "After graduation, 15 of us caravanned out to L.A.," she says. "We slept on the couches of the alums who graduated the year before us, and the next year our couches were occupied by the class below us."

    TUITION $21,633 (undergrad, out-of-state); $33,022 (grad, out-of-state)

    ALUMNI Marvel Studios vp production and development Stephen Broussard, Fear the Walking Dead's Kelsey Scott

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    ArtCenter College of Design

    A new 3,800-square-foot production studio for online content — in the basement of 950 S. Raymond Ave. — opened in October 2018, while a fundraiser to revamp the Ahmanson Auditorium took place this past March. Another big improvement on campus: ArtCenter hired its first diversity officer, who has helped initiate a partnership with the DGA's Diversity Committee and plan panels on women and minorities in the film industry. Although the emphasis here is on commercial filmmaking, plenty of Hollywood artists make the pilgrimage to Pasadena — like Catherine Hardwicke, who this past winter offered a master class, and Zack Snyder ('89), who in March screened director's cuts of his work for students. "Helping filmmakers find [their] vision is what ArtCenter does incredibly well," Snyder says.

    TUITION $42,008 (undergrad); $44,362 (graduate)

    ALUMNI Michael Bay, cinematographers Don Burgess and Shelly Johnson

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    Rhode Island School of Design

    It's an art school, so it's … artsy. Shorts shot by students screened at this year's Cannes and Sundance film festivals while assistant professor Ramón Rivera-Moret's documentary on Joseph Pulitzer aired on PBS' American Masters. Also, class of '79's Robert Richardson (Quentin Tarantino's longtime DP) won a lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Cinematographers and RISD's most famous grad, Gus Van Sant ('75), earned kudos for his latest, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, at the Berlin Film Festival. According to Drumline director Charles Stone III ('88), the school's free-range style of teaching promotes "a holistic approach to being creative" that encourages students "to explore beyond your major."

    TUITION $52,860 (undergrad)

    ALUMNI Seth MacFarlane, Mary Lambert, Martha Coolidge, Ryan Cunningham

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    Ringling College of Art + Design

    The school's centerpiece — the Studio Labs complex — is finally complete, with a ribbon cutting in November on its third and final building, a postproduction facility that includes more than 5,000 square feet of editing suites, dubbing bays, a final color room and a complete Foley sound effects stage. Despite being 2,500 miles from Hollywood, the campus continues to attract industry players; visiting mentors this past year included screenwriter Zak Penn, The OA creator Brit Marling, Winston Duke and Beau Bridges, who is shooting his documentary/feature hybrid Acting: The First Six Lessons at the Studio Labs this summer. "I was impressed with the vision to produce commercial films with a student crew, mixing the educational and commercial worlds together for the benefit of each," says Bridges, who adds that his "highly prepared" Ringling crew helped production finish two days ahead of schedule.

    TUITION $43,710

    ALUMNI Editors Andrew Halley and Jason Letkiewicz

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    Savannah College of Art and Design

    Backlash to the state's new anti-abortion laws hasn't had much impact on this coastal southern campus. The school's annual Savannah Film Festival — smack in the middle of the fall awards season — will likely continue to attract big names (last year's attendees included Hugh Jackman, Emily Blunt, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Armie Hammer, John Krasinski, John David Washington, Chloë Grace Moretz and Kiki Layne). In fact, the festival has been such a hit, SCAD has been launching spinoffs, like AnimationFest, GamingFest and a TVfest. When it comes to learning, students have access to the soundstages at nearby Savannah Film Studios as well as the 60,000-square-foot SCAD Digital Media Center located 250 miles away in Atlanta (worth the trip for the 4K cameras).

    TUITION $37,575 (undergrad), $38,475 (graduate)

    ALUMNI Stuntman Clayton Haskell, Rocksauce Studios founders Steven Walker, Q Manning and Peter Yoder

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    Syracuse University

    Just because you're going to Syracuse doesn't mean you have to stay in Syracuse. The upstate New York school offers both undergrad and graduate study-abroad options in London, Berlin and Florence as well as a semester-long course in 35mm filmmaking at the famed FAMU in Prague. Stateside, Syracuse has partnered with the Sundance Film Festival to send 10 students to Park City to schmooze on the slopes with professional moviemakers. For those who decide not to leave the city, there's the Syracuse Film Hub, the school's 15,000-square-foot soundstage.

    TUITION $48,780 (undergrad); $29,160 (graduate)

    ALUMNI Danny Zuker, producer Lila Yacoub, Sony VFX supervisor Mike Lasker

  19. 19

    Columbia College

    Five equipment centers around the city dispense cameras and lights for on-location shooting, and there's also the school's 35,000-square-foot media center, complete with two soundstages and a motion-capture studio. The college's semester-in-L.A. program lets students spend time in Hollywood, with classes at Raleigh Studios, plus there are guest seminars by alumni like Emmy-winning Atlanta cinematographer Christian Sprenger ('07). According to alum Bryan Smiley — vp production at Sony Pictures — the school excels at teaching how to navigate between art and commerce. "Talent is only half the battle," he says. "Understanding the business side of Hollywood is equally important."

    TUITION $26,610 (undergrad); $37,588 (graduate, producing); $38,841 (graduate, directing)

    ALUMNI Lena Waithe, George Tillman Jr.

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    Stanford University

    For documentarians, the good news is that there's an MFA program in northern California that specializes entirely in nonfiction filmmaking. The bad news is that it takes only eight students a year. But the 15- to 20-minute thesis docs those eight students make at the end of the two-year program always seem to win prizes at festivals … and sometimes end up on public television. Paloma Martinez ('18) directed a short doc that won two awards at the San Francisco Film Festival and got picked up for broadcast on PBS's POV series. For undergrads, Stanford offers a film studies major, which covers a range of cinema, including a new dedicated screenwriting track.

    TUITION $50,000 (undergrad); $52,479 (graduate)

    ALUMNI Jon Alston, Lisa Joy, Sarah Naftalis

  21. 21

    Northwestern University

    Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Kathryn Hahn — more funny people have passed through Northwestern than the Laugh Factory. "There's a Northwestern mafia in Hollywood," says Zach Braff ('97). "I always joke that we should have a secret handshake." The School of Communications offers undergrad degrees in radio, TV and film, with specialties in writing, acting, directing and — rim shot — comedy. But the MFA program can be more serious, with a recent retooling of its documentary program. Even if you don't learn the secret handshake, Northwestern provides a solid pipeline to Hollywood through groups like Open Television, the school's homegrown development and distribution platform for web-based shows.

    TUITION $56,232 (undergrad); $74,756 (graduate)

    ALUMNI Meghan Markle, Billy Eichner, Warren Beatty, Greg Berlanti

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    Pratt Institute

    Film students are encouraged to dip their toes into a variety of formats — from commercials to documentaries — and now there are new courses on virtual reality and serialized storytelling. Also new this year, video artist Kara Hearn, whose work has been shown at MoMA, has taken over as acting chairperson while chairperson Jorge Oliver fills in as an interim dean of the School of Art. Following 2017's explosive School of Art lecture series speech by Werner Herzog — in which he announced film school was a waste of time — Jim Jarmusch addressed students as part of the Film/Video lecture series' 2018 edition; his remarks have been kept under wraps. "Pratt invaluably influenced my experience as a filmmaker. Not just from the teachers and students in the film program, but though the overall education philosophy of the school," says writer alum Liz Hannah (The Post, Long Shot). "Having the time and space to develop my own personal aesthetic while also being taught the skills to be articulately critical are tools I use in my career on a daily basis."

    TUITION $51,870 (undergrad); $33,984 (graduate)

    ALUMNI Writer-producers John Requa, Glenn Ficarra and Liz Hannah, director Aubrey Smyth

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    San Francisco State

    A check for $25 million — from alumni George and Judy Marcus — has been a shot in the arm for the school's liberal arts departments, including the film division, which has been spending, well, liberally on upgrading its production facilities and animation labs. The school has also started buying new cameras and lenses as well as VR equipment, which "students are very hungry for," says Britta Sjogren, who'll soon be stepping down as director (replaced by film scholar Celine Shimizu in the fall). There's been some money spent on new hires, too; experimental media artist Rosa Park and sound designer Bethany Sparks have joined the faculty.

    TUITION $7,270 (undergrad); $8,704 (graduate)

    ALUMNI Annette Bening, Lisa Cholodenko, Steven Zaillian

  24. 24

    Boston University

    The screenwriting and production courses are being retooled for the streaming age, with students writing, producing and directing "micro" series rather than traditional film school shorts. The school is working on better interaction between departments, with a new class this spring in which screenwriting faculty will partner with production faculty. "It's long overdue," says department chair Paul Schneider. "We want to break out of the silo that have screenwriters writing projects that are not developed for production and production courses that lack strong screenplay content."

    TUITION $54,729 (undergrad and graduate)

    ALUMNI Jim Gianopulos, Jennifer Getzinger, Josh and Benny Safdie

  25. 25

    Cal State Northridge

    It costs a fraction of the others on the list, but this state school is still top-notch. "It has a blue-collar mentality," says alum John Hampian ('05), who set up an internship for CSUN students when he was running the production department for Mad Men (he's now vp production at Lucasfilm). "It's roll up your sleeves, we're going to learn by doing." Recently, the school added AR and VR courses and rebooted its Entertainment Industry Institute Symposium (this year's speakers included Marvel exec producer Michael Grillo, class of '71). "When I think of CSUN, I think of sitting in a soundstage, getting work done and joking around," reminisces Hampian. "It was where all the fun was."

    TUITION $6,972 (undergrad); $8,406 (graduate)

    ALUMNI Tiffany Brown, manager of television at Kevin Hart's HartBeat Productions; Brian Miller, senior vp/GM, Cartoon Network Studios


    The THR Rankings: How It's Done

    For starters, the magazine consults with a variety of educators, industry professionals, grads, current students and other experts to hear what insiders are saying. Then a team of reporters fans out and digs in at campuses across the country to discover what’s new since last year’s rankings. All that reporting is then triangulated with other factors — student awards, alum achievement, killer (or not) facilities — to determine the final rankings.

    This story first appeared in the Aug. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.