Film schools a maze of varied opportunities

Tuition is soaring, but what are students getting for their buck?

It might be easier than ever for unskilled youngsters to pick up cheap cameras, download some software and make movies, but even for those amateur Spielbergs, the path to Hollywood success still tends to run through film school, where they can learn the basic craft and gain invaluable connections. But how to sort through hundreds of expensive choices to find that one program that will suit a student's gifts and point him or her toward a job in the business? The Hollywood Reporter spotlights 12 institutions that represent good investments for aspiring industry players of all types. (Note: Except where indicated, tuition figures are rounded and cover two full semesters of undergraduate education, minus living expenses and fees.)

More coverage: Mentors key to recent grads

American Film Institute Conservatory
Tuition: $32,000 (for one year of a two-year master's program)
Unique advantages: Industry-trained faculty; an intense first-year "cycle project" that has students making three 20-minute films in quick succession
Ideal for: Talented film school graduates looking for a coat of polish. AFI yearly admits no more than 28 students each in its directing, screenwriting, producing and cinematography programs, and 14 each in the editing and production design programs. But those handfuls of students are the cream of the crop, and everyone gets a chance to collaborate with budding specialists. Bob Mandel, the conservatory's dean, says, "We don't think of editors as 'cutters,' or cinematographers as 'people who light.' We think of all of our fellows as filmmakers."
A word from an alumnus: Director Mark Waters (2005's "Just Like Heaven") cites the cycle as the highlight of his stint at AFI, saying, "You get ripped to shreds by your peers during the evaluations, but you compete by doing good work. Once you get out into the real world, you realize that this kind of scrutiny is nothing."

American University
School of Communication, Film & Media Arts Department

Tuition: $31,000
Unique advantages: Strong, socially active documentary studies; access to network news organizations; "Summer in L.A." internship program
Ideal for: Politically active storytellers. Larry Kirkman, the dean for the School of Communication, touts AU's blended curriculum, which gives equal emphasis to filmmaking, journalism and public communications. Kirkman also cites the school's embrace of cutting-edge media like mobisodes, and ultimately, he says, "Hollywood or Washington, you use the same tools."
A word from an alumna: Danielle Gelber, senior vp original programming at Showtime, says, "I found it to be the most personalized, hands-on program. You could go to school in the ivory tower in the morning and then drive down the street that afternoon and be field-producing stories for network news."

Boston University
College of Communication, Department of Film & Television

Tuition: $35,000
Unique advantages: The "BU in L.A." internship program; a curriculum that treats television and online media as seriously as it does film
Ideal for: Movers-and-shakers-to-be. Although BU has "the strong tradition of the kind of independent filmmaking one expects on the East Coast," notes Charles Merzbacher, chair of the Department of Film & Television, the school has become famous for turning out Hollywood execs like Joe Roth and Lauren Shuler Donner.
A word from an alumnus: David Dinerstein, president of marketing and distribution for Lakeshore Entertainment, jokes that he's constantly surprised when he runs into fellow alums at lunch meetings and weekend barbecues, but he's quick to emphasize that BU is "not a trade school" and that he received "an incredibly well-balanced liberal arts education in addition to an extraordinary filmic education."

California Institute of the Arts
School of Film/Video

Tuition: $31,000
Unique advantages: Low 7-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio; state-of-the-art theaters for screening student work; acceptance based on portfolio, not GPA or test scores
Ideal for: Iconoclasts and visionaries. Although the program has become renowned for famous grads like writer-director Brad Bird and Pixar's John Lasseter, its alumni roster also boasts the likes of Tim
Burton and Kirby Dick (2006's "This Film Is Not Yet Rated"). Steve Anker, the School of Film/Video's dean, says that students are "expected to deal creatively with every aspect of filmmaking and encouraged to follow their own ideas." Because of this, CalArts has seen its alums get featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Biennial, Artforum and -- oh, yes -- at the top of the boxoffice and on the winner's podium on Oscar night.
A word from an alumnus: Writer-actor Mark Polish (Warner Bros.' February release "The Astronaut Farmer") says that what's great about CalArts is that "they teach you that it's OK to be on the outside."

Columbia University
School of the Arts, Film Division

Tuition: $34,000
Unique advantages: Strong personal attention in the master's program; crossover between the writing, directing and acting schools
Ideal for: Budding screenwriters, though Jamal Joseph, the chair of the master's program, is quick to note that the days of Columbia as a writers-only school are long past, what with grads like James Mangold and Greg Mottola (Sony's current release "Superbad") making their mark as directors. Still, whether they're studying writing, directing or producing, students are trained in "the art of the story." Joseph also says that the key to the program's success is its sense of community: "Any student can talk to any faculty member inside or outside their concentration."
A word from an alumnus: "I learned more about the craft of writing screenplays and telling stories in the two years I spent at film school than I have in the six or seven I've spent working on films," offers screenwriter Simon Kinberg (2006's "X-Men: The Last Stand"). "I learned that you don't put that camera in your hand and don't call 'action' until you know the story you're telling and you know the person in front of that camera."

Loyola Marymount University
School of Film and Television

Tuition: $31,000
Unique advantages: The Sony-sponsored "TAG: Transition After Graduation" program; Hollywood-accessible location; small class size
Ideal for: Those with big hearts and big dreams. Teri Schwartz, the dean of LMU's School of Film and Television, says that the goal of her department is to create "a transformational educational experience" that stresses "collaboration, not competition."
A word from an alumna: Producer Effie Brown (Picturehouse's current release "Rocket Science") says she bypassed USC and UCLA and targeted Loyola Marymount primarily because of a 10-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio. "In my opinion, you can learn about the art of cinema, the history, how to thread a camera, all that, but if you don't have someone you can ask a question to, it's not helpful," she says.

New York University
Tisch School of the Arts, Maurice Kanbar Institute of Film & Television

Tuition: $39,000
Unique advantages: Diverse, accomplished faculty; vibrant campus; formidable tradition
Ideal for: Worldly folk with a taste for the finer things. Because NYU has ruled the roost for decades as one of the top two or three film programs in the U.S., it would be easy for the faculty and administration to rest on their laurels, but Mary Schmidt Campbell, dean of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, says that NYU's program acknowledges the need to be in a "constant conversation with what's going on in the world outside the academy in order for us to keep the tools of filmmaking and distribution up to date." For the Kanbar Institute, that means adapting to new filmmaking technologies, while still emphasizing visual storytelling and challenging authority. "Fundamental values don't change -- no matter what kind of technology you're using," Campbell says.
A word from an alumnus: Director Chris Columbus says that what sets NYU apart is the city itself: "You have New York City as your campus, and because the students who attend are from all over the world, there's a real world education about film."

Northwestern University
School of Communication, Department of Radio/Television/Film

Tuition: $35,000
Unique advantages: An "aesthetics first" approach to study; active interest in interactive entertainment; a fiercely loyal alumni base dubbed "the NU mafia"
Ideal for: Self-starters with a collaborative spirit. Associate professor David Tolchinsky believes the strong ties that NU grads feel to the school and each other is due in large part to the unique grant system, which has students getting their media projects approved and funded by other students. "It's a very healthy environment, with students learning production within classes but also from one another," Tolchinsky says.
A word from an alumnus: Screenwriter Eric Bernt (Rogue Pictures' January release "The Hitcher") says that focus on design over technical know-how leads to student work "very different from what you see coming out of NYU or AFI or UCLA, which all look like they're geared for Hollywood."

Rhode Island School of Design
Film/Animation/Video Program

Tuition: $33,000
Unique advantages: Low class size; immersive art-school environment
Ideal for: Aesthetes. The main point that RISD's Film/Animation/
Video department head Peter O'Neill makes to prospective students and their parents when they visit the school is that "this is an art school, as opposed to a college or a university." All students take a common first year, emphasizing art and design. "That arguably serves the animators a little more," O' Neill says. "But I think for the live-action students, it can be interesting, too. Film is a visual art. Nothing wrong with learning how to draw."
A word from an alumnus: Academy Award-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson (1991's "JFK," 2004's "The Aviator") says, "Rhode Island School of Design -- and in particular Peter O'Neill -- was responsible for bringing a light to that which rested within. What more might I add?"

Department of Film, Television and Digital Media

Tuition: $19,000, nonresident; $7,000, resident
Unique advantages: World-renowned film and television archive; regular lectures and workshops led by industry players
Ideal for: Confident go-getters. Students finance their own projects at UCLA, which can leave some less-assured types feeling at sea. But Nancy Richardson, head of the film school's postproduction department and a working feature film editor in Hollywood, says that a low student-to-faculty ratio means that each budding filmmaker receives a great deal of mentoring and individual advice. "We try to nurture the unique voice of each student, allowing them to tell their stories their way," she says. "We teach the basics of filmmaking so that each student has an overview of all aspects of filmmaking, with an emphasis on formula-free storytelling."
A word from an alumnus: Producer-director Todd Holland ("Malcolm in the Middle") loved the laissez-faire nature of the program, which allowed him to practice his commercial filmmaking skills alongside his more art-minded classmates -- and taught him how to treat people. "Our crews weren't paid, and they didn't get class credit, so you had to feed them well," he says. "And you had to crew for others to get them to crew for you. I was a dolly grip, a camera assistant, a DP, a caterer. I learned respect for each individual's job and what they need to do their job."

School of Cinematic Arts

Tuition: $35,000
Unique advantages: A network of more than 10,000 alumni working in the industry; training with immediate, real-world applications; an under-construction "cinematic arts complex" that promises to be state-of-the-art
Ideal for: People who want a near-guaranteed job in show business. According to dean Elizabeth Daley, USC suggests its film students take a broad approach to learning the craft: "We require that each student, regardless of the specific field in which they have chosen to concentrate their talents, take courses from throughout the range of our six divisions: animation and digital arts, critical studies, interactive media, Peter Stark producing, production and writing. Our women and men leave here with the skills, experience and sense of teamwork that enable them to make meaningful contributions from the minute they begin their careers."
A word from an alumnus: Director Peter Segal (2005's "The Longest Yard") says that USC's real-world focus makes a difference. "With people able to edit on their laptop computers, students are getting a much more vocational experience in filmmaking at a much younger age," he explains. "That needs to get synthesized and filtered and applied in the right areas so that when they leave school they have a better understanding of those technical tools they've been playing with already."

University of Texas at Austin
College of Communication, Department of Radio-Television-Film

Tuition: $26,000, nonresident; $8,000, resident
Unique advantages: The "Semester in L.A." internship program; nontraditional cultural environment
Ideal for: Freethinkers. Sharon Strover, chair of the Department of Radio-Television-Film, says, "We find we are competing regularly for M.F.A. students with NYU and USC, and many of them choose to come here because we are different. We emphasize training across all the component realms of production: writing, editing, audio, producing and cinematography. Students are trained to be versatile and adaptive and to understand filmmaking in narrative and documentary traditions."
A word from an alumnus: When asked what he got out of his time at UT-Austin, writer-producer Patrick Sean Smith (ABC Family's "Greek") says, "What I use every day is the ability to look at things not necessarily from a pragmatic perspective but by figuring out what your individual taste is, your voice, and how best to articulate that."