While the path to the exclusive, highly-competitive film industry is often nonlinear, aspiring filmmakers across the U.S. would do well to start at the same place that many of the top film artists also began: film school. Majoring in film and completing a film studies program can give students the knowledge they need to not only create meaningful films, but also navigate the tough, unrelenting film industry.
Listed here are eight of the top film schools in the U.S., ranked roughly by prestige and respect within the industry. Some schools offer undergraduate and graduate programs, while some only specialize in graduate programs. Many allow students to receive their BA (Bachelor of Arts), BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts), MFA (Masters of Fine Arts), or even a MPhil/PhD.
While this list attempts to give students an overview of what each program has to offer, it is encouraged for students to research each program and find out if it’s the right fit for them.
1. New York University
Tuition: $49,962 a year
Location: Manhattan, New York City, NY
Number of Students: 3,163 undergraduates, 939 postgraduates
NYU’s film school (referred to as the Tisch School of the Arts) has perhaps the most prestigious list of notable alumni, rivaled only by USC, and continues to produce some of the best talent in the industry. The program remains impressively “old-school” as well, being one of the few programs to require students to shoot a film on 16mm film, rather than the cheaper and more common digital format.
The school offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees. It encourages students to be well-versed in both the theory and creation of film and to develop their own unique voice as a filmmaker. Students of the graduate film program will leave the school with at least five short films created, a feature film script, and a host of credits in other students’ films in various behind-the-scenes roles. Many graduates are offered high-profile positions right out of school.
- Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, The Departed)
- Joel Coen (No Country for Old Men, Fargo)
- Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation)
- Oliver Stone (JFK, Natural Born Killers)
- Woody Allen (Annie Hall, Midnight in Paris)
2. University of Southern California
Tuition: $49,464 a year
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Number of Students: 865 undergraduate, 653 postgraduate
Like many of the film schools on this list, USC benefits from being located right in the heart of Hollywood, and having a host of successful alumni. Not only does this give them access to cutting-edge technology, but also a bevy of top-notch faculty and teachers. The school can count the likes of James Franco, film critic Leonard Maltin, and THX inventor Tomlinson Holman among its faculty. This school has received generous donations from George Lucas and many of its other notable alumni.
The school is divided into seven programs: Animation, Cinema Studies, Film & TV Production, Interactive Media & Games, Media Arts & Practice, Producing, and Writing. While students will choose a program to focus on, the school encourages students to take courses across programs and prides itself on its interdisciplinary approach. The school also believes in allowing film theory and film practice to co-exist, and be “in constant interaction.”
- Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin)
- George Lucas (Star Wars, American Graffiti)
- Bryan Singer (X-Men, The Usual Suspects)
- Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind)
- Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Back to the Future)
3. University of California Los Angeles
Tuition: $15,131 a year (in-state), $25,196 (MFA)
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Number of Students: 328 undergraduate, 315 graduate
The UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television is among the cheaper film schools in the U.S., with in-state tuition less than half of the top 2 schools. But don’t get the idea that it’s lacking in quality. Often compared to USC based on its proximity to the prestigious school and their natural college rivalry, UCLA prides itself on being “non-Hollywood,” in contrast to USC’s “just like Hollywood” mentality.
Students must choose from one of eight areas of study to focus on, from directing to writing to cinematography, and it is required for all students to complete an internship during their senior year. For students joining the school’s graduate program, 5 “programs” are offered, including directing, screenwriting, and producing.
The school also boasts the state-of-the-art Billy Wilder Theater, capable of projecting almost any film or digital format from history. It is considered the most advanced theater on the West Coast.
- Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now)
- Rob Reiner (When Harry Met Sally, A Few Good Men)
- Shane Black (Iron Man 3, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang)
- Justin Lin (Fast Five, Star Trek Beyond)
4. American Film Institute
Tuition: $47,030 first year, $58,216 second year
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Known as the AFI Conservatory, this film school is a private, not-for-profit graduate school program put together by the American Film Institute. Only 28 students are selected each year for each of the 6 disciplines taught, making it a rather selective school to be admitted to. With a rather impressive alumni list, AFI students can be sure they’ll receive a top-of-the-line film education.
Students will study for two years (five terms), working on at least four short films (including one “thesis” short film), in what’s often referred to as a “film boot camp.” Faculty involvement is very minimal for these films since the school prefers to let students take a flexible and creative approach to filmmaking. Thesis films have more faculty involvement, with a faculty member acting as executive producer on the film. Students must adhere to industry regulations during filming, preparing students for the rigors of creating films outside of film school.
Famously, student films are taken to a student-led “narrative workshop,” where creators listen as their classmates give harsh criticism on their work. The workshop is not for the faint-of-heart, and has been known to discourage students right out of the film industry. For those that come out with their pride intact, the process becomes a highly constructive, enlightening experience.
- David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive)
- Terrence Malick (Tree of Life, Badlands)
- Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan)
- John McTiernan (Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October)
- Edward Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai)
5. California Institute of the Arts
Tuition: $43,000 a year
Location: Valencia, CA
Founded by Walt Disney in 1961, CalArts has a reputation for producing the very best in animators. Many of the top Pixar and Disney creatives hail from here. This school has proven to produce top-notch live-action filmmakers as well, such as Tim Burton and James Mangold.
As an art school, CalArts has the advantage of providing an arts-minded campus and college experience, with alumni referring to it as “some kind of electric energy.” In 2011, Newsweek named it the best school in the country for artists, noting its exceptional artistic environment and resources.
While providing all the latest technology expected from a top film school, CalArts also boasts a faculty full of renowned, practicing professionals, including James Franco (who also teaches at USC) and director Kathryn Bigelow, with many more leading artists visiting classes and workshops.
- Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice)
- John Lasseter (Toy Story, Cars)
- Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol)
- Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, John Carter)
- James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma, The Wolverine)
6. Columbia University
Tuition: $49,300 a year (Masters of Arts), $55,356 a year (Masters of Fine Arts)
Location: Manhattan, NY
Columbia’s film school skews much more towards the indie, upscale side of the industry, with faculty hailing from all sectors of the indie film industry. It’s among the oldest film schools on this list, with its first classes starting back in 1915. The official School of the Arts was founded in 1948. Like many film schools, admission is highly competitive, and only 65 out of 1000+ applicants being accepted each year.
Undergraduate students can expect to have a scholarly, writing-intensive education, with practical work coming from working on graduate film student projects. Those looking to get their MFA can choose between a screenwriting/directing program or a creative producing program, with programs sharing many classes with each other. Depending on their emphasis, students will write and/or direct at least 2 short films.
- Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty)
- Jennifer Lee (Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph)
- Simon Kinberg (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, X-Men: First Class)
7. Wesleyan University
Tuition: $48,704 a year
Location: Middletown, CT
As Vanity Fair put it in 2008, “This tiny Connecticut University, with a total enrollment of 2,700, has turned out a shockingly disproportionate number of Hollywood movers and shakers.” And having just completed its brand new College of Film and the Moving Image building, Wesleyan is poised to continue that noted trend and become a leading film school in the U.S.
Undergraduates are required to study another core curriculum, with the idea that filmmakers should be well-versed in history, literature, and science. The school is home to the famous Wesleyan Cinema Archives, which contains a bevy of historical documents and materials from renowned filmmakers such as Ingrid Bergman, Frank Capra, and Roberto Rossellini.
- Michael Bay (Transformers, Armageddon)
- Joss Whedon (The Avengers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
- Jon Turteltaub (While You Were Sleeping, Cool Runnings)
- Alex Kurtzman (Mission: Impossible III, Star Trek)
- Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less)