This story first appeared in the August 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
University of Southern California
It was a nose-to-nose thoroughbred horse race between USC and AFI, the winner of 2011’s inaugural Top 25 Film Schools list in THR, but the narrow consensus of experts consulted — from indie insiders to academics to industry titans — was that in 2012, USC was ahead by a whisker. “It’s been quite a year,” says Elizabeth Daley, dean of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, the best-funded, most Hollywood-connected film school. Even by USC standards, the achievements were dramatic.
Alums held key creative positions on films grossing more than $7 billion worldwide and on top auteurist TV shows including Mad Men and American Horror Story (17 Emmy noms each). USC added a Comedy@SCA program to train the Paul Feigs of the future as well as a new building for the interactive media division backed by game giants EA and Microsoft that provides 62,500 square feet of new space. Princeton Review has named USC America’s top game design program three years running. So why should film students care about visual effects, performance-capture labs or new Microsoft endowed professor Dennis Wixon? “We train people for the future, not the past,” says Daley. “You need to take courses in interactive media and animation even if you’re never going to do it. If you’re a producer or director who doesn’t understand VFX, you’re in trouble. We’re integrating our music editing into the games division.” Once balkanized by discipline, students now take an intro course together. “You do learn how to do everything,” says Steve Boman, ’09, author of the USC memoir Film School. Another tipping point in the road to No. 1: Growing programs offer three levels of degrees, versus AFI’s one.
TUITION $42,000 (plus room and board)
DEGREES B.A., M.A., MFA and Ph.D. programs in everything from film and TV to animation and interactive media
“Three DPs I’ve worked with went to USC, and when we talk about camera blocking and shot design, we easily fall into the shared language we picked up in film school. On a TV pilot, I made a reference to how we did it on the old mixing board at USC, and virtually everyone in the room perked up: sound mixer, editor, music editor, producer, various assistants. We realized that all of us had attended USC film school and had similar experiences. So talking about the work quickly turned into a lot of shorthand and head-nodding — and grousing about professors. The mix went very smoothly.” — Michael Lehmann, director, True Blood
American Film Institute
Did you like The Artist, Bridesmaids, The Tree of Life, Moneyball, War Horse, Hugo, Modern Family, Boardwalk Empire, Justified and The Killing? Thank AFI Conservatory for training key talents behind them. “One thing you learn quickly is that good isn’t good enough,” says Oscar-winning alum Edward Zwick. “In an industry utterly wedded to sequels and presold titles, the ones coming out of AFI push that a little bit.” Adds his AFI classmate and collaborator Marshall Herskovitz: “Unless you strive for your own kind of excellence, it’s never gonna happen. It’s about being the best version of you that you can be.” They credit AFI’s tough love for propelling them to a 2012 WGA Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award and for making the most horrifying studio notes meetings seem like a breeze. In two years, AFI fellows make four to 10 films, with a little inspiration from visitors like Pedro Almodovar, Luc Besson and AFI alums Brad Falchuk and Rodrigo Garcia. And they make their mark. “Consider that only 125 filmmakers graduate each year,” says Bob Gazzale, president and CEO of the American Film Institute, “and that last year, AFI alumni were honored with three Academy Award nominations, including a second win in a row for best cinematography, more Student Academy Awards than any other school, 12 Emmy nominations and 27 alumni at Sundance.” AFI recently relaunched American Film as an e-magazine, upgraded its soundstage and library, and soon it will remodel its screening rooms. “They even have air conditioning now!” marvels Herskovitz.
TUITION $39,760 for first year; $48,365 for second year (includes thesis tuition of $8,605)
DEGREES MFA, Certificate of Completion
NOTABLE ALUMNI Terrence Malick, David Lynch, Darren Aronofsky, Wally Pfister
Beijing Film Academy
Beijing Film Academy is the cradle of the nation’s cinema, which cast a growing shadow this year when China opened its market to more Western films, closed in on Japan as the world’s No. 2 film market and released the first $100 million Chinese epic with a Hollywood star, BFA grad Zhang Yimou‘s The Flowers of War. During the past year, BFA established a partnership with UTA to expand Chinese filmmakers’ careers and set up the International Animation Technology Joint Research Centre with Pukeko Pictures, the TV affiliate of New Zealand’s Weta Workshop (The Lord of the Rings). In 2013, BFA will open the multimedia Wanhao-Mokko Mediapolis with Beijing’s Wanhao Cartoons and Montreal’s Mokko Studio. BFA also partners with numerous global schools, including new programs with Columbia College Hollywood and Emerson, and is in talks with USC. But BFA is not open to all Western trends: courses are in Chinese and no tattoos are allowed for acting applicants.
TUITION $6,700 to $8,000 for overseas students; $8,000 to $9,400 for overseas grad students (plus $1,725 for Chinese language courses; classes not in English).
DEGREES B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. programs in directing, cinematography, film management, film technology, acting and animation.
NOTABLE ALUMNI Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine), Lu Chuan (City of Life and Death)
“Getting into the Beijing Film Academy was my turning point. If I didn’t, I might never have had the chance to enter the film profession.” — Zhang Yuan, director, Beijing Bastards
University of California Los Angeles
UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television Dean Teri Schwartz is retooling the film program to capitalize on the school’s unusual advantage over most other major film schools: its theater department, which in May made the list of THR‘s 25 best drama programs in the English-speaking world. Schwartz is smart to blend the programs, aiming to produce actors who can perform on camera as well as on stage and directors who can direct actors and become more than mere manipulators of machinery. One example: Oscar winner Bobby Moresco (Crash) recently had UCLA actors, screenwriters, directors, producers, cinematographers, production designers and costume designers spend 11 weeks collaborating on five short films. UCLA often is defined by contrast with rival USC; recent grads say USC is a factory of ambition that favors its most viable commercial prospects, while UCLA heavy hitters lavish more personal attention on students. “It’s not a huge puppy mill,” says new film TV and digital media chair William McDonald. “Rather than throwing a hundred students a year at the wall and hoping a couple will stick, we invest in 30 to 35 a year. I know them all.” USC might have production and editing chops, but UCLA is said to produce grads with stronger storytelling, directing and writing skills. And UCLA grads strike co-workers as happier without being lazier, as proved by 2012 Oscar winners Alexander Payne and Gore Verbinski.
TUITION B.A.: $14,010 ($36,888 nonresident); MFA: $23,468 ($35,713 nonresident); M.A. or Ph.D.: $14,809 ($29,911 nonresident).
DEGREES B.A., M.A., MFA and Ph.D.
NOTABLE ALUMNI Justin Lin, Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine).
“I learned about directing actors from Delia Salvi; about cultivating a free and poetic sense of film from Ed Brokaw; about embedding visual patterns with thematic resonance into film from Steve Mamber; and a lot about efficient and orderly storytelling from Richard and Barbara Marks.” — Payne (The Descendants)
New York University Tisch School of the Arts
NYU proudly still maintains the mean-streetwise filmmaking traditions of alums Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone and Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, but it’s also keeping up with the times. Now students can learn how to actually get their films made, marketed and seen. They can get a dual MBA/MFA in producing or get advice and connections from such people as Ted Hope and Geoff Gilmore in the new Cinema Research Institute think tank. Because music rights have sunk countless promising student films, NYU innovatively struck an exclusive partnership with Corbis/GreenLight/EMI providing preferred access and pre-approved pricing for quick, easy rights to thousands of tunes.
DEGREES B.A., BFA, MFA, MPS, M.A. and Ph.D. programs in moving-image archiving, preservation, performance studies and cinema studies
NOTABLE ALUMNI Joel Coen, Charlie Kaufman, Todd Phillips
As the film biz (and THR‘s coverage) inexorably goes global, foreign schools pop up more and higher on this list — including La Femis in Paris, up five slots from 2011. Last year, the Paris-based school accepted 44 of more than 1,100 applicants for its four-year program. All instructors are industry pros. All students direct a short film. “It’s the same for everyone, so each student can learn all of the different professions,” says La Femis head Marc Nicolas. A TV degree program launches in 2013. Classes are taught in French.
TUITION Free for European Union members (for foreign students, $13,105)
DEGREES Screenwriter, director, producer, sound engineer, set designer, editor, distributor, theater director
NOTABLE ALUMNI Francois Ozon (Swimming Pool), Noemie Lvovsky (Camille Redouble)
Film Studies chair Jeanine Basinger, auteur of Wesleyan’s program, has sent hundreds of students from Middletown, Conn., to Hollywood, including Joss Whedon and Michael Bay. This year, Benh Zeitlin and 27 other Wesleyan grads made Beasts of the Southern Wild, the Sundance and Cannes prize-winning Oscar contender. “In 2012, we cover all the bases — we’ve got the art films and we have blockbusters covered with Joss’ Captain America,” says Basinger. “And we’ve also got Battleship and People Like Us — we’re the top of the flops! You have to have everything.” This cultural trifecta explains Wesleyan zipping up from No. 9 to 7 on this list. Zeitlin has called Wesleyan a “boot camp where they really force you to examine every element of your script and every decision you’re making as a director.”
TUITION $59,402 (includes room and board)
DEGREES B.A. in film studies
NOTABLE ALUMNI Whedon, Bay, Miguel Arteta
California Institute of the Arts
CalArtians (as CalArts alums are known) are glad the L.A. Times called it the “Harvard Business School of animation.” Grads have made films grossing $25 billion. Two of the five top-grossing films of 2012, Brave and Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, were CalArtian-directed, and grad James Chinlund‘s production design gave The Avengers its billion-dollar look. But they wish people knew they make live-action films too, like the indie Only the Young.
DEGREES BFA, MFA in film, video and experimental animation; MFA in directing; BFA in character animation
NOTABLE ALUMNI John Lasseter, Brenda Chapman, Tim Burton, James Mangold
Emerson College, Visual & Media Arts School
Boston’s Emerson College has a film, TV and media program so eminent that only one in six applicants gets in. But it’s getting even more eminent, and so it zoomed from 18 to 9 on THR‘s list. For 25 years, Emerson has had an internship program in Los Angeles, but this month trustee and alum Vin Di Bona (America’s Funniest Home Videos) kicked off the fund-raising campaign for Emerson’s new $85 million campus tower on Sunset Boulevard. It opens in 2014, and the glamour can’t be bad for current students’ career prospects.
DEGREES B.A. and BFA in media production, B.A. in media studies, MFA in media art
NOTABLE ALUMNI Denis Leary, Doug Herzog, Seth Grahame-Smith, Norman Lear, Jay Leno
“Emerson’s film program functions as a microcosm of Hollywood. Yes, there’s theory and technical training, but there’s also an emphasis on how to form lasting partnerships and will your project into being, how to get your script or film into the right hands. Above all, there’s a sense of community, that we’re the little film school that could, and that we’ve got each others’ backs. And those things make a huge difference after graduation.” — Grahame-Smith, writer, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter
Columbia University School of the Arts
Founded by Milos Forman and Frank Daniel, Columbia still looms large under new chair Ira Deutchman, Fine Line’s founder. Alum Antonio Mendez Esparza won the Critics’ Week Grand Prix in Cannes, Oscar nominee Lisa Cholodenko was elected to the Academy board of governors, and Mark Raso won a student Academy Award. Columbia has won 12 SAAs in the past 10 years, more than any other school, and produced a startling number of major women directors. And besides famous MFA filmmaking teachers like Eric Mendelsohn, winner of the University Teaching Award, there’s Annette Insdorf’s brilliant undergrad film studies program, with teachers James Schamus and Richard Pena, whose students also make great movies (Half Nelson, Murderball).
TUITION $49,448 MFA, $42,584 M.A. (not including fees)
DEGREES MFA in film; M.A. in film
NOTABLE ALUMNI Kathryn Bigelow, James Mangold, Simon Kinberg, Courtney Hunt (Frozen River), Nicole Holofcener
“I can’t imagine having my present career without the wisdom, support and example of my former professors. The Columbia experience continues to give me the fortitude and passion to try again, to strive for the heights of my filmmaking idols (several of whom have taught at Columbia).” — Greg Mottola, director, Superbad
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