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.
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.
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
The new green-screen 3D studio, created by visual effects wizard Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, The Tree of Life) gives students at the Denver school a launchpad into the future of movies.
The main studio resides in a 25,000-square-foot building packed with equipment for the school's many degrees, including directing, writing, producing, acting for the screen, postproduction and cinematography.
Spike Lee and Avatar cinematographer Mauro Fiore are among the guest artist teachers.
Notable Alumni: Postproduction technician Aaron Kroger (Total Recall)
The 6-year-old Sarasota, Fla., film program attracts teachers like Christopher Nolan's cinematographer-turned-director Wally Pfister.
"I was impressed by the skill levels and the sophistication of the questions asked," says Pfister. "This is clearly a program in its ascent."
Adds director Werner Herzog, who advised Ringling on its directing program, "I like it because it originated from a circus, Ringling Bros. It's the best digital effects program in the country."
Notable Alumni: Editor-director Jason Letkiewicz (I'm Positive)
SCAD both benefits from and boosts Georgia's film production industry, which increased 29 percent in 2012 to $3.1 billion.
SCAD is also all over the rising Savannah Film Festival, which celebrated its 15th anniversary in November with guests like Stan Lee and the late James Gandolfini. SCAD's Atlanta program added an M.A. and MFA in film and TV, and in the 60,000-square-foot Digital Media Center, students shot a Newsroom-like comedy.
Notable Alumni: Visual effects artists Nickson Fong (Control) and Steve LaVietes (Alice in Wonderland)
Ithaca might lack Cornell's Ivy League airs, but its Roy H. Park School of Communications can launch careers, especially in broadcasting.
Its Televison-Radio department grads nab jobs at NBC News, ABC and ESPN. "It's one of the best film schools in the country," says Alanna Nash, who wrote the biography of alum Jessica Savitch, the late NBC News anchor whose life was dramatized in the film Up Close & Personal.
The college's L.A. program arranges help from Disney CEO Robert Iger and producer Michael Nathanson (L.A. Confidential).
Notable Alumni: David Boreanaz (Bones), director Mark Romanek (Never Let Me Go)
Students at DePaul's School of Cinema and Interactive Media get their hands on cameras from day one and own their films.
Visiting artists include Werner Herzog and Beasts of the Southern Wild scribe Lucy Alibar.
This year, the Chicago university teamed up with the city's Cinespace Film Studios, giving students access to 20,000 square feet of production space -- and contacts you can't buy.
"With six networks shooting there this fall, not only are our students learning, they're making connections," says screenwriting chair Kristyn Benedyk. "They get hired right and left."
Notable Alumni: Gillian Anderson, John C. Reilly
Jan Krawitz, director of Stanford's MFA program in Documentary Film & Video, was recently interviewed by PBS' POV series in a piece titled "Should Aspiring Documentary Filmmakers Go to Film School?"
The answer was pretty much: Sure, if you can get into Stanford. Eight students per class have three principal professors, including Krawitz.
Since 1984, 24 Student Academy Awards for documentaries have gone to Stanford-trained talents, who learn how to write proposals, do preproduction, research, shoot, record sound, edit, hawk their work and chat up Errol Morris at Telluride.
During the course of the two-year program, students emerge with three films, plus a fourth they co-direct and credits on other students' projects.
Notable Alumni: Actual Films producers Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk
Animation shares equal billing with film and video in the Film/Animation/Video department, so it's no wonder that graduates such as Seth MacFarlane have gone on to dominate the genre in TV and film animation.
Based in Providence, R.I., RISD's art-school setting means that experimentation is encouraged.
Notable Alumni: Cinematographer Robert Richardson (Hugo), director Gus Van Sant
Wesleyan might not be as well known as industry mainstays USC and UCLA, but the school, located in Middletown, Conn., is revered in liberal arts circles. And the industry sure recognizes the prominent names that have graduated from the program created by film professor and historian Jeanine Basinger.
"Our alumni have the big blockbusters like [X-Men Origins:] Wolverine, written by David Benioff, and Star Trek Into Darkness, written by Alex Kurtzman," Basinger says.
"But also they make the small indies at the other end, like Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild."
Marc Shmuger, the former Universal co-chairman, is a Wesleyan alum who bridges both worlds: He recently produced Alex Gibney's doc We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks. Says Basinger: "We don't conform to a style, we reflect the liberal arts tradition -- our graduates are everywhere."
Notable Alumni: Matthew Weiner, Joss Whedon
FSU's College of Motion Picture Arts was disappointed when Digital Domain, the VFX house that partnered with FSU for the West Palm Beach Digital Domain Institute, filed Chapter 11 last year.
"At the end of the day, that journey made FSU's film school an even cooler place for our students," says dean Frank Patterson.
Key Digital Domain players joined FSU full time to lead its new Animation and Digital Arts program, including Hugo VFX artist Jonathan Stone and Disney veteran Chuck Williams.
Big-name guests like director Kirby Dick visit the Tallahassee campus, and Tribeca Enterprises chief creative officer Geoffrey Gilmore is a distinguished lecturer at FSU.
Notable Alumni: Marvel Senior VP of Production and Development Stephen Broussard, Participant Media executive VP Production Jonathan King
Students who want to work in European cinema should consider a detour through Syracuse, N.Y.
"We're the only U.S. film school among the 15 schools in the International Filmmaking Academy," says Syracuse professor and IFA vp Owen Shapiro.
The academy's president is Italian producer-director Gian Vittorio Baldi. And at its annual workshop in Bologna, Italy, in July, the master teachers were directors Abbas Kiarostami and Bernardo Bertolucci -- two Syracuse interns are currently working with Bertolucci. IFA schools include Rome's National Film School. Syracuse also has a junior-year program at Prague's Academy of Performing Arts.
At the 10th Syracuse International Film Festival in October, expect guests as eminent as past visitors Ed Harris, Edward James Olmos, Moshe Mizrahi, Thomas Newman and Albert Maysles.
Notable Alumni: Producer Thom Oliphant, director Jong-chan Yoon (My Paparotti)
In a metropolis with the world's highest concentration of top-tier film schools, Pasadena's Art Center distinguishes itself with faculty who are all industry professionals teaching part-time while keeping their fingers on what's popular.
Rush Hour screenwriter Ross LaManna, who recently became chair of both the undergrad and grad programs, has embarked on increasing the synergies among the programs and aggressively placing interns in top companies (The Weinstein Co., Marvel, Appian Way).
"We just converted a 5,000-square-foot photo stage into a soundstage, doubling filmmakers' space," he says. "
There's an intense visual aesthetic," says board member Greg Silverman, Warners' newly named president of creative development and worldwide production. "The students' work shows how design can be central to all thinking processes."
Says cinematographer and teacher Affonso Beato, who created the school's stereoscopic 3D cinematography program and lab as well as an iPad app that calculates 3D shooting distances, "You're immersed in visual design here."
Unlike some schools where competitiveness rules, Art Center emphasizes compassion and teamwork, but that doesn't mean the pressure doesn't get intense.
Alum Zack Snyder (Man of Steel) told students the school's attrition rate "was like Vietnam." But he bonded in the trenches with Larry Fong, his cinematographer on 300. In May, alum John X. Carey directed Dove's most watched Internet commercial, and Michael Sucsy, known for HBO's Grey Gardens, got a deal to direct the feisty cheerleader movie Dare Me.
Notable Alumni: Directors Michael Bay, Tarsem Singh
One of the country's largest private nonprofit arts and media colleges, it offers about 2,000 students almost 200 film and video classes in cinematography, sound and both traditional and digital animation.
CCC's new Comedy Performance and Writing program requires students to spend one semester training with the venerable troupe at Chicago's nearby Second City, the famous comedy club/theater.
Program coordinator Anne Libera says that the school emphasizes creative cross-training and includes courses in its Television, Arts, Entertainment and Media Management departments.
Notable Alumni: Actor Scott Adsit (30 Rock), actress Aidy Bryant (Saturday Night Live), rapper-actor Common, cinematographer Michael Goi
Where did Veep star Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who just earned her 14th Emmy nomination, beating Lucille Ball's record, and manager-producer Ken Kamins, currently working with Peter Jackson on The Hobbit franchise, get their start? Evanston, Ill.'s Northwestern, where the Radio-Television-Film curriculum is integrated into the School of Communication.
It doesn't hurt graduates' prospects that the Northwestern University Entertainment Alliance (NUEA), aka "the Purple Mafia," has become part of the L.A. and New York industry scenes.
From Warren Beatty to Zach Braff to Jimmy Fallon's Late Night replacement Seth Meyers, the Northwestern crowd looks out for each other. Alum John Logan, the Tony-winning triple Oscar nominee, is now writing the next Bond film as well as Showtime's Penny Dreadful.
Notable Alumni: Sherry Lansing, Stephen Colbert
UNCSA School of Filmmaking marks its 20th year with a new Animation/Production Design and Gaming building.
UNCSA resembles a miniature studio lot -- it inspired Matthew Weiner to direct his first film, the upcoming You Are Here, in the school's hometown of Winston-Salem, N.C.
New faculty include Patrick Read Johnson (Dragonheart exec producer), animator Stephen Baker (Lilo & Stitch) and Bob Keen (Hellraiser makeup effects designer).
Thirty-five UNCSA alums were represented at this year's Sundance Film Festival. And less than two years after graduating, writer Vera Herbert sold her first feature, Don't Make Me Go, to Big Beach, and her first pilot, Blink, to The CW, where it was directed by drama alum Peter Hedges.
Says Mud director Jeff Nichols, "I wouldn't be the same filmmaker if I had not attended UNCSA."
Notable Alumni: Writer Travis Beacham (Pacific Rim), director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express)
"Traditional boundaries are crumbling," says BU Film & Television chair Paul Schneider, "so we did away with the silos."
Instead of making students choose between film and TV, now all of the undergrads are film, TV and new media students with equal access to the full range of courses.
BU also is breaking geographic boundaries with its Los Angeles program, which hit an all-time high of 91 students per semester. And its graduate Media Ventures program held its July project Pitchfest at the L.A. campus for the first time, giving students a chance to woo Yahoo, AOL and HBO.
BU awards students who cross the country a T-shirt that reads: "Mom. Dad. I'm bi-coastal."
Notable Alumni: Producer Bonnie Arnold (How to Train Your Dragon), producer Joe Roth (Alice in Wonderland), producer Debbie Liebling (Comedy Central/South Park)
UT's Radio-Television-Film department in the actual and artistic capital of the Lone Star State trains about 900 undergraduate and 160 graduate students.
Students can screen work at the nearby Paramount Theatre and influential indie Alamo Drafthouse before showcasing it on the national film scene, like MFA graduate Brian Schwarz did when he won this year's narrative Student Academy Award for his film Ol' Daddy.
Each semester, 45 students go Hollywood in the UTLA program.
Notable Alumni: Matthew McConaughey, Greek creator Patrick Sean Smith, Arrested Development director Lev Spiro, writer-director Michael Zinberg (The Bob Newhart Show, Quantum Leap)
LMU's School of Film and Television, based on the Westside of Los Angeles, is all about the internships.
One-third of its students regularly find them, and they've worked in 400 companies, including Sony Pictures Entertainment, 20th Century Fox, DreamWorks, Disney and the Sundance Institute.
LMU is growing its documentary program by placing students at Ken Burns' company in New Hampshire. And thanks to a $1 million grant from the Walter Lantz Foundation -- Lantz was the creator of Woody Woodpecker -- LMU's animation department cracked the top 20 in Animation Career Review's annual list of great programs, beating out five schools on THR's own film school list, including NYU.
Animators, take warning: Applications have tripled this year.
Gaming is another hot program: The New York Times recently hailed a game alum Leonard Menchiari is developing that's inspired by street demonstrations in Italy and Europe.
LMU also has struck an alliance with Film Independent's Screenwriting Lab to mentor grads, and, last January, it hosted the 10th annual Golden Globe Foreign Language Film Symposium, featuring Globe and Oscar winner Michael Haneke.
It also partnered with LACMA for last summer's James Bond exhibit, but that shouldn't have come as a surprise because Bond producer Barbara Broccoli is an LMU alum.
Notable Alumni: Writer Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential), director Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games sequels), writer-producer David Mirkin (The Simpsons)
Although Emerson's main campus is in Boston, its presence has loomed large in Los Angeles since it became the first out-of-town college to develop a residential study and internship program here in 1986.
The school's Department of Visual & Media Arts will become a more permanent resident in January when classes open in a new 100,000-square-foot Hollywood Center on Sunset Boulevard.
"Immersion in a city that caters professionally to your passion is very attractive to our students," says Friends producer Kevin Bright, founding director of the L.A. campus.
Notable Alumni: Will & Grace creator Max Mutchnik, Henry Winkler, Parks and Recreation executive producer Harris Wittels
Chapman's Dodge College of Film & Media Arts in Orange, Calif., boasts alumnus Travis Knox's Chapman Filmed Entertainment, a partnership between the college and private investors. Under the program, producer Knox (The Bucket List) recently wrapped Trigger, a $1.25 million film with Scott Glenn (Training Day) and dozens of Chapman alums, including director Basel Owies.
If it makes money, expect to hear lots more about the program's slate of six movies, each budgeted at $1 million or less.
Chapman also has such filmmakers in residence as Robert Zemeckis and Bong Joon-Ho, professor Dawn Taubin's annual Women in Film panel, and an advertising/PR program that gets grads jobs -- Alex Kirkwood, Fox creative director, domestic theatrical marketing, is just one example.
Says recent grad Max Keller: "I have no fear of postgraduation life. I've taken classes from people who used to run the legal department at New Line and Universal, ran marketing and distribution for Miramax, have been nominated for Oscars. I've written, directed, and edited movies. I've been the assistant to the guy who discovered Scorsese and De Niro."
The day after graduation, Keller went to work for Greg Foster, CEO of Imax Entertainment.
Notable Alumni: Actor Ben York Jones (Like Crazy)
"Unlike schools that are feeders into the Hollywood system, the combination of craft and business savvy that we teach at Columbia makes our students more entrepreneurial and more ready for the changing environment they will be faced with upon graduation," argues chairman Ira Deutchman, who heads the graduate school.
"Being almost exactly halfway between Europe and Los Angeles, we prepare the students for multiple ways of approaching the market, whether it be through government subsidy outside the U.S., independent/private finance, working for TV or any combination thereof."
For proof, check out the 23 films made this year by alums within their first 12 months after graduation.
Deutchman chalks it up partly to the 24-student Creative Producing program within the film MFA, which expanded in 2010, enhancing production values and increasing collaboration among producers, writers and directors so they are ready to roll on graduation day.
Students have taken medals in narrative film at the Student Oscars three years running and won the TV Academy's spec script competition two years in a row. They're well represented in the shorts selections at Cannes, Tribeca and Sundance.
While awaiting a $5 million screening room due in 2016 on the Manhattan campus, students show movies at Columbia's film festival, held with the Film Society of Lincoln Center -- and perhaps dream of following Ayad Akhtar, who won 2013's Pulitzer Prize for drama for his play Disgraced, or replicating the success of alum James Ponsoldt, who has premiered his past two films, Smashed and The Spectacular Now, at Sundance in 2012 and 2013, respectively.
Notable Alumni: Writers Phil Johnston (Wreck-It Ralph), Simon Kinberg (This Means War) and Jennifer Lee (Wreck-It Ralph), director Greg Mottola (Superbad)
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.
Notable Alumni: Tim Burton, Brad Bird, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton
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."
Notable Alumni: Dustin Lance Black, Jack Black, Shane Black, Tim Robbins, George Takei
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."
Notable Alumni: Joel Coen, Charlie Kaufman
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."
Notable Alumni: Darren Aronofsky, David Lynch, Terrence Malick
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.
Notable Alumni: Ron Howard, Jon Landau, George Lucas