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In the same way that film and television professionals across the globe have had to navigate the brave new world of pandemic-era productions, so too have film students. From shooting thesis projects on cellphones to hiring in-house COVID-19 safety officers, America’s top film programs sought to prepare the next generation of filmmakers for an industry that looks vastly different from the one that existed only 18 months ago. The majority of these programs are now readying for in-person instruction, and students will be greeted with additions like a new soundstage for University of Texas at Austin and Columbia Chicago’s multicamera broadcast setup.
All of THR‘s top film programs have an eye on the future, largely focusing on adding technologies (like Chapman University’s new LED wall for virtual production) and building more inclusive educational environments (see USC’s Black Student Welcome Experience). And as diversity and accessibility become mainstays of Hollywood’s everyday vocabulary, this year’s list sees two schools making first-time appearances — Howard University, which boasts the only MFA in film at an HBCU, and Brooklyn College, which established its film program only in 2015, with most of the student body coming directly from the surrounding neighborhood. Still, each program’s aim is to best prepare its students for the entertainment industry — whatever it may look like.
1. New York University
NEW YORK CITY
NYU was an undeniable presence in the virtual 2021 awards season. Grad school alum Chloé Zhao made history as the first woman of color to win the Oscar for best director for Nomadland, while Zhao’s NYU classmate Shaka King was a part of the first all-Black producing team to be nominated for best picture for Judas and the Black Messiah. At the Student Academy Awards, NYU students held two of the three narrative competition spots. In the past year, alum Cary Joji Fukunaga established a grant to fund grad student thesis films, which will be awarded to BIPOC projects and talent. Additionally, the Black Family Film Foundation donated $2.25 million for production grants for graduate film students. And while the 2020 school year saw 110 grad student productions and 5,000 individual undergraduate projects under the watchful eye of COVID-19 safety officers, in-person classes will resume in the fall. Returning students will be greeted by a new chair of the grad film program, Julia Solomonoff, while Spike Lee returns as the artistic director of the graduate program. Faculty member Mick Casale made a lasting impression on King: “During our second year, he gave us a list of 50 or so questions to answer before starting a new screenplay. It’s an asset I employ to this day.”
TUITION $59,332 UNDERGRADUATE; $65,408 GRADUATE
ALUMNI Dee Rees, Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik, Ang Lee, Sam Esmail
2. American Film Institute
At the conservatory, attended by just 327 grad students in 2021, 12- to 14-hour days for six days a week is not an uncommon schedule during a fellow’s first year. (Free counseling is provided by the school.) Brad Ingelsby, an Emmy nominee for writing Mare of Easttown, says beyond writing three short films his first year, he also was required to be on set, not just for his own project but others: “Collaboration is one of the biggest lessons I learned at AFI.” Alum Sian Heder’s feature CODA nabbed Sundance’s grand jury prize and a $25 million bid from Apple. This past year, AFI conducted Zoom Master Seminars led by the likes of Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee and David Fincher, and Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, 2021’s Dune) joined the faculty. In addition, the newly established Lawrence Herbert Alumni Center will assist students in gaining an industry foothold, while scholarship funding was at an all-time high, with a recent $5 million contribution from the estate of Jerry Perenchio in support of diverse students.
TUITION $59,951 GRAD
ALUMNI Patty Jenkins, Melina Matsoukas, David Lynch
3. USC School of Cinematic Arts
Despite challenges the pandemic wrought on job prospects, USC’s First Jobs Program claims to have assisted more than 300 recent alumni with securing entry-level jobs. USC captured a leading four prizes at the Student Academy Awards, while producer Gail Katz (Air Force One) was appointed chair of film and television, and producer Ed Saxon was named chair of the famed Peter Stark Producing Program. SCA’s renowned game-design program recently announced the Gerald A. Lawson Endowment Fund, which is meant to support Black and Indigenous students interested in gaming. The Black Student Welcome Experience, a new program aimed at onboarding Black students in a way that provides community, was launched with a two-day event that had introductions from Black faculty and staff and a Q&A with SCA alumni and Insecure showrunner Prentice Penny. “When I was 18, I didn’t fully appreciate what all these amazing foreign directors had done,” says the Emmy-nominated showrunner of the international cinema class, his favorite. “I didn’t realize how much I soaked in from films like 8 1/2, The Bicycle Thief, Jules and Jim and Yojimbo.”
TUITION $60,446 UNDERGRAD; $39,900 GRAD
ALUMNI Judd Apatow, Jon M. Chu, America Ferrera
4. Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts
Diversity is a priority at Dodge, where 25 professors of color were hired in the past year and a mentorship program for underrepresented high schoolers will kick off in 2022. The school invested in a full-time COVID officer and spent $750,000 on COVID-19 protections, which will continue for the next school year. This fall will mark the opening of a career office, led by Joe Rosenberg, to form a pipeline into an industry where relationships are the bedrock for success. But those relationships often begin within the campus itself. “My closest collaborators are still the handful of peeps that I made my first film projects with more than 10 years ago,” says Blindspotting director Carlos López Estrada. “It’s been invaluable to be surrounded by this community of like-minded artists.”
TUITION $58,250 UNDERGRAD; $48,336-$58,250 GRAD
ALUMNI The Duffer brothers, Justin Simien, Everything Sucks! creator Ben York Jones
5. Columbia University
NEW YORK CITY
One of the nation’s most expensive film programs produces talent that works across the commercial (longtime superhero filmmakers James Mangold and Simon Kinberg are alums) and fine arts space. While its graduate programs are the ones that focus on practical filmmaking, undergraduate film studies majors, who focus on academic theory, often work on graduate student film sets to gain on-set experience. Columbia’s screenwriting classes, says Davíd Már Stefánsson, a writer on the Netflix series Katla, have “very much in common with how an actual writers room is conducted. When I showed up for work for my first professional writers room, I immediately felt right at home.”
TUITION $60,514 UNDERGRAD; $73,240 GRAD
ALUMNI Disney Animation chief Jennifer Lee, Kathryn Bigelow
6. Emerson College Visual and Media Arts Program
Boston-based Emerson’s attributes include its wide-reaching satellite programs, such as its Hollywood facility on Sunset Boulevard that acts as the home base for its summer internship programs. International offerings include a three-year BFA program in film arts at the Paris College of Art, a summer Prague film program at the FAMU film school, and a restored medieval castle in the Dutch province of Limburg, which serves as Emerson’s European campus. Back stateside, a visual and media arts directing studio will be unveiled during the 2020-21 academic year in the Boston campus’ Paramount Center, while an Emerging Media Lab recently was opened to support virtual and augmented reality curriculum. Among its most recent alumni triumphs, Erik Messerschmidt claimed the Oscar for his cinematography on Mank.
TUITION $51,264 UNDERGRAD; $1,322 GRAD, PER CREDIT
ALUMNI Richard LaGravenese, Fahrenheit 451 producer Sarah Green, A Dog’s Journey co-producer Holly Bario, Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes’ Randy Barbato
SANTA CLARITA, CALIFORNIA
Walt Disney established the school during the 1960s to help educate the next generation of animation talent and, more than a half-decade later, it remains among the top programs for future animators looking for employment at the House of Mouse. Disney’s Pixar Animation is headed by alum Pete Docter, who took home this year’s best-animated film Academy Award for Soul. Outside of character animation, the school also offers degrees in film production, acting, fine art and graphic design. Recently, alumni Chad Hamill established a scholarship for Indigenous artists, while Charles Gaines has established a fellowship that will provide scholarship support for Black students in the MFA Art program.
TUITION $52,850 UNDERGRAD AND GRAD
ALUMNI Andrew Stanton, Tim Burton, Brad Bird
8. Loyola Marymount University
A leadership upheaval took place in the spring when dean Peggy Rajski was ousted after less than three years in the position and was replaced by interim dean Brian Keith Alexander. LMU brought in a faculty hire, seasoned producer Rosanne Korenberg, to lead the new collaboration between the school of film and television and LMU’s college of business administration. Recent partnerships with Sundance and SXSW — which will see the school provide 85-plus free passes to online programming — along with the completion of a newly minted Student Success Center at its Howard B. Fitzpatrick Pavilion, are meant to increase student networking opportunities. Meanwhile, PA boot camps with Ryan Murphy’s Half Initiative banner are meant to ready students for entry-level production jobs.
TUITION $52,577 UNDERGRAD; $20,775-$33,240 GRAD
ALUMNI Francis Lawrence; Dear White People producer Effie Brown; Captain Marvel producer Patricia Whitcher; Ratched co-creator Evan Romansky
Long a respected program, UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television is undergoing some soul searching following an extensive review by the school’s academic senate that found “chronic operational and procedural problems.” The school was hit by layoffs and budgets cuts in 2020 as well after the resignation of dean Teri Schwartz, who was replaced by Brian Kite. Still, the report recognized “outstanding recent faculty hires” and “an exceptionally diverse, engaged and committed student body.” Oscar nominees (Mank producer Eric Roth) and Emmy hopefuls (Pose writer Steven Canals) are among the alumni of the school, which boasts a strong network that includes some of the industry’s biggest box office filmmakers, including F9 director Justin Lin. To aid BIPOC and housing-insecure students, the school has launched several scholarships, including the MACEF Filmmaking Scholarship and Diane Frolov Opportunity Fund.
TUITION $36,297 UNDERGRAD, CALIFORNIA RESIDENTS; $66,051 UNDERGRAD, NON-CALIFORNIA RESIDENTS; $17,486 GRAD, CALIFORNIA RESIDENTS; $32,588 GRAD, NON-CALIFORNIA RESIDENTS
ALUMNI Gina Prince-Bythewood, Frank Marshall, Dustin Lance Black
10. University of Texas at Austin
UT’s new curriculum includes a writers-room class for MFA students that worked with alumna Jennifer Howell of DreamWorks Animation, as well as a development and distribution course taught by former Paramount executive Kyle Davies (not to mention the occasional guest lecture from alum and possible gubernatorial candidate Matthew McConaughey). The former PBS Austin City Limits soundstage was acquired by the school, which opened a new Center for Entertainment and Media Industries, offering students access to internships via corporate partners. Shondaland’s head of comedy and drama Alison Eakle credits her Introduction to TV Writing class with not only influencing her graduate experience but also her “entire career trajectory.”
TUITION $29,266 UNDERGRAD, IN STATE; $57,792 UNDERGRAD, OUT OF STATE; $31,792 GRAD, IN STATE; $40,612 GRAD, OUT OF STATE
ALUMNI Wes Anderson, Renée Zellweger, Mark and Jay Duplass
11. University of North Carolina School of the Arts
WINSTON-SALEM, NORTH CAROLINA
“Smaller and scrappier” is how Emmy-nominated Mare of Easttown director and alum Craig Zobel describes his production-oriented alma mater, adding that it truly “aligned with an indie film spirit.” In 2021, the school named independent filmmaker Deborah LaVine the new dean of the School of Filmmaking. For the second straight year, the school will boast an incoming class of 50 percent women. UNCSA covers all costs of student films, which in the past school year included 200 student-produced films that followed industry COVID-19 protocols, including tests and officers.
TUITION $6,497-$23,731 UNDERGRAD; $9,196-$23,899 GRAD
ALUMNI Brett Haley, Jeff Nichols
12. Columbia College Chicago
Faculty and facilities are what make this Chicago school continue to stand out. The media production center is set to be upgraded for the first time since the facility opened, adding a master control room that will allow for multicamera broadcast production. And while students can earn outside professional experience in Chicago’s busy production scene, professors also continue their extracurricular work, as Ted Hardin did with his recently released PBS doc Flannery. More than 10 Columbia College alums were recognized at the 2021 NAACP Image Awards, with Diane Weyermann and Keith Walker a part of the winning team behind top doc John Lewis: Good Trouble.
ALUMNI Lena Waithe, The Hate U Give producer George Tillman Jr., Chicago P.D. director Carl Seaton
13. Wesleyan University
In keeping with this institution’s liberal arts identity, its film curriculum is focused on formal analysis and theory. Its newly expanded Center for Film Studies houses two state-of-the-art cinemas and the student-run Wesleyan Film Series. Its barrier-raising high cost of tuition is counterbalanced by such measures as the Wesleyan Film Fund for underrepresented students, which raised $120,000 from alumni donations and resulted in six CFILM career transition grants to graduating majors and minors and also introduced CFILM filmmaking grants for first-generation and BIPOC film majors. And what it doesn’t provide in production experience, it makes up for in strong industry connections, with a network that includes 2006 grad and Nomadland producer Dan Janvey.
TUITION $61,449 undergrad
ALUMNI Akiva Goldsman, Kenneth Lonergan, D.B. Weiss
14. Boston University
Situated inside the university’s school of communications, the program is a solid choice for aspiring filmmakers who want a New England experience. The school offers a semester in L.A. as well as robust summer internships in the city with housing provided at the Park LaBrea Apartments. Students also have access to the Kasker film and video resource center, which houses rare 16mm prints, as well as complimentary screenings at the nearby Harvard Film Archive and the Museum of Fine Arts.
TUITION $58,560 undergrad
ALUMNI The Safdie brothers, Jim Gianopulos
15. Florida State University
FSU continues to rise in industry esteem thanks to commitment to facilities and a tight-knit alumni network. Oscar winner Barry Jenkins maintains partnerships with his FSU classmates — editor Joi McMillon and DP James Laxton — on high-profile projects like Amazon’s The Underground Railroad. The College of Motion Picture Arts’ support extends beyond postproduction, with film-festival submission fees factored into its tuition, which sits lower than most other film programs’. “FSU doesn’t just teach the technical aspects of filmmaking, as many other programs do. Students are steeped in the traditions of world cinema, from Kubrick to Kurosawa,” says alumni Matt Lopez, the writer behind the Andy Garcia-led Father of the Bride remake.
TUITION $7,328 undergrad, in state; $24,517 undergrad, out of state; $22,619 grad, in state; $51,032 grad, out-of-state
ALUMNI Maze Runner director Wes Ball, Stillwater producer Jonathan King
16. DePaul University
While the university long has offered undergrads the option to take a quarter in Los Angeles, this fall it will launch a creative producing MFA program that will be based in L.A. and headed by producer Tim Peternel. After a shutdown amid COVID, DePaul’s student productions will be back up and running at the school’s dedicated soundstage space at industry-frequented Cinespace in Chicago. Alumni Alexis Auditore, a director of physical production at Marvel Studios, says her favorite class was screenwriting taught by Gary Novak: “I was able to turn years of haphazard writing into something with structure.”
TUITION $41,361 undergrad; $21,141-$35,280 grad
ALUMNI Chaz Bottoms, creator of Cartoon Network series Battu; High Maintenance cinematographer Brian Lannin; The Blacklist director Daniel Willis
17. Syracuse University
SYRACUSE, NEW YORK
Surveying the Black Futurist Movement, Feminist Film Practices and Animating Documentary are new additions to the university’s ever-developing curriculum. The school recently added two scholarships for its undergraduate students, whose faculty now includes Emmy nominee Susan-Sojourna Collier. Syracuse alum and Netflix director of documentary film Dan Silver still reads his freshman world cinema theory textbook each year: “I do this because SU taught me that critical film thinking is a selfless muscle.”
TUITION $55,920 undergrad; $31,212 grad
ALUMNI Danny Zuker, Pixar president Jim Morris
18. Ithaca College
ITHACA, NEW YORK
As other institutions were outsourcing their commencement ceremony productions, Roy H. Park School of Communications production students gained timely, hands-on experience putting on their school’s virtual events. New additions to the program, which counts Little Fires Everywhere showrunner Liz Tigelaar among its alumni, include faculty member Olubusola M. Ajayi — who’s teaching courses like Filmmakers of Color — and the Iger-Bay Endowed Scholarship, a $1 million gift from alum and Walt Disney executive chairman Bob Iger and wife Willow Bay that is meant to support underrepresented students.
TUITION $46,610 undergrad
ALUMNI Bill D’Elia, Rand Geiger, Mike Royce
19. ArtCenter College of Design
The Southern California-based film program has expanded its focus to include a screenwriting track alongside directing, editing and cinematography. And thanks to a fundraising initiative led by alumni including Zack Snyder, who also is a board trustee, the college’s Ahmanson Auditorium is being transformed into a 220-seat cinema theater that will include state-of-the-art equipment, such as 4K digital and 35mm projection, HDR color grading and Dolby Atmos. Says Snyder of his BFA classes: “I’m known for my storyboards and being very meticulous in my planning. But the most important thing I learned at ArtCenter was how to shape the moment when it happens.”
TUITION $47,334 undergrad; $50,024 grad
ALUMNI Captain Marvel VFX artist Dan Bartolucci; director Ericson Core
20. Rhode Island School of Design
With alumni like Gus Van Sant and David Bryne, the Providence school long has focused on filmmaking that skews experimental. Set in one of the premier fine arts schools in the country, students can expect a program that combines video, documentary and animation into one curriculum, working on equipment that ranges from 16mm film cameras (film is edited on traditional Steenbecks) to HDV camcorders and DSLRs.
TUITION $55,220 undergrad and grad
ALUMNI Seth MacFarlane, Shepard Fairey
21. Ringling College of Art & Design
Ringling students recently returned to the Florida school’s Studio Labs, which take up a full-city block with more than 30,000 square feet of soundstage and postproduction space. The film program is unique in its offering of two tracks — Narrative or Branded Entertainment — the latter of which focuses on consumer-facing video content. Recently, donors financed The Green Light Fund, which provides support for student projects. Outside of traditional film production, the school boasts a strong digital program, including highly regarded computer animation and virtual reality development.
TUITION $46,600 undergrad
ALUMNI Writer-producer Jason Letkiewicz, editor Andrew Halley
22. Savannah College of Art & Design
With 6,000 students across 31 degree programs in 15 entertainment arts disciplines, SCAD by far is the biggest film program on THR’s list. Located in Hollywood’s favorite tax-incentive state (campuses are in Savannah and Atlanta), SCAD allows for alumni and students to work on productions like Amazon’s The Underground Railroad and Netflix’s The Politician. In-person learning has restarted and so has the building of a Hollywood-style film backlot and an XR Stage for virtual productions. With a program as massive as SCAD’s, faculty turnover is persistent, but new additions include Emmy winner James Sadwith. And with the dean for the School of Entertainment Arts being Andra Reeve-Rabb, former director of casting at CBS Primetime, it’s appropriate that the school offers an in-house university casting office.
TUITION $37,575 undergrad; $38,475 grad
ALUMNI Last Week Tonight producer Amanda Bayard
23. Howard University
Billed as the only MFA in film at an HBCU, the Howard graduate film program marries practical filmmaking with critical theory focused on African diasporic cinema. Founding faculty member and award-winning Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima continues to teach at the school, which has also welcomed Julie Dash as a visiting professor, while Barry Jenkins recently offered a master class. The indie film-focused curriculum teaches directing, cinematography, editing and sound while also offering classes like critical discourses in postcolonial third cinema.
ALUMNI Selma cinematographer Bradford Young; MLK: FBI producer Kenneth Alexander Campbell
24. Cal State University Northridge
Proximity to Hollywood and the benefit of a Cal State tuition (one-eighth the cost of other L.A.-based private film programs), CSUN long has been a feeder to the industry’s executive ranks. The program is doubling down on virtual production, with the construction of a virtual reality lab and soundstage as well as new strategic partnerships with Epic Games and Halon Entertainment. “The internship program at CSUN landed me a gig that put me on a trajectory that shaped my career and life,” says Arielle Kilker, a two-time Emmy-winning editor on series like Cheer and Chef’s Table. “And getting through film school without massive student loan debt put me in a position to make the best decisions after graduating.”
TUITION $7,038 undergrad; $8,472 grad
ALUMNI Glenn S. Gainor, head of physical production at Amazon; John Hampian, vp physical production at Lucasfilm
25. Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema at Brooklyn College
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK
Brooklyn College, a part of the CUNY system, offers an affordable alternative for New York-based students. The student body is majority nonwhite— more diverse than other film graduate programs — with the bulk of students coming from the Brooklyn neighborhood. First opening its doors in 2015 — the result of a $30 million public-private partnership — the school still has a lot of growing to do in terms of reputation but already offers impressive facilities like a 4,000-square-foot soundstage, all based at the Brooklyn Navy Yard campus. Explains Mandy Marcus, a graduate of the school’s MFA directing program whose short film Cousins won the IFP/Gotham Student Showcase, “I grew really close to my cohort during this class because we were all invested in each other’s work and individual voice.”
ALUMNI Director of More Happiness, Venice Film Festival participant, Livia Huang
In order to decide which programs make up The Hollywood Reporter’s Top 25 American Film Schools list— and then where they end up within the list — calls are made to knowledgable industry players to determine what each school’s reputation is within greater Hollywood. Also taken into consideration are the changes the school has made year-over-year (for example, whether an Oscar winner was hired to teach screenwriting students about story structure). Finally, THR looks at the alma maters of the past year’s top awards-season winners, film festival breakouts and box office stars.
Written by Steve Chagollan, Sharareh Drury, Mia Galuppo, Pamela McClintock, Sydney Odman, Lexy Perez and Abbey White.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
Aug. 19, 1:20 p.m. An earlier version of this story listed the Ghetto Film School as a partner in LMU’s PA boot camp. Ghetto Film School is no longer a partner of the school’s.
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