Top 10 Great Film Schools In The United States


Although most major universities might offer a couple courses on film or even a major, most of the film makers in Hollywood go to a select few film schools that have great reputations for film making. Some of these schools are solely focused on films, while others are part of a larger program. Here are ten of the best.

Bonus: New York Film Academy, New York, NY & Los Angeles, CA

New York Film Academy Los Angeles Campus

Founded by producer Jerry Sherlock of The Hunt for Red October fame in 1992, the New York Film Academy has grown into a prestigious film and acting school with campuses in Los Angeles and New York City, alongside international locations. The Academy’s film school in Los Angeles offers a range of distinguished degree programs that include AFA, BFA, and MFA tracks in Filmmaking, Acting for Film, Producing, Screenwriting, Cinematography, and Documentary Filmmaking in addition to degree programs in Photography, Animation, and Game Design. The school’s philosophy of “learning by doing” translates into students finding themselves in front of and behind the camera from day one in addition to in-class lectures and intensive workshops.

New York Film Academy students receive extensive hands-on experience in writing, directing, and editing their own films in addition to serving as crew members on fellow students’ projects, preparing them to enter the industry immediately upon graduating.

Notable Faculty: Lynda Goodfriend (actress on Happy Days), Louis Gossett Jr., Bill Duke, Adam Nimoy, Heather Hach-Hearne (writer of Freaky Friday), Leander Sales (editor on Get on the Bus)

Notable Alumni: Muhammad Hamdy (cinematographer on The Square), actress Naya Rivera, Lisa Cortes (co-producer of Precious), Aubrey Plaza, Shaq, actress Camilla Luddington, actress Analeigh Tipton, Michael Staininger (director of The Tomb)

10. School of Visual Arts, New York, NY


Primarily located in a pair of skyscrapers in Manhattan (one near Midtown and the other in Chelsea,) the School of Visual Arts in New York is one of the top art schools in the United States, not just in film production and cinematography, but photography, sculpture, interior design, digital art and animation, The school has its own animation studio, as well as three of the most prestigious gallery spaces in New York.

Notable Faculty: Village Voice critic Amy Taubin, sound mixer and 3-time Academy Award winner Chris Newman

Notable Alumni: Bryan Singer, Jared Leto, Andrew Rona (President of Silver Pictures)

9. University of North Carolina School of Arts, Winston-Salem, NC


UNC is one of the most prestigious public colleges in the country and similarly, film students at the UNC School of Arts in Winston-Salem have to keep up the same rigorous standards. The film making school emphasizes collaboration with the other four departments: dance, design and production, drama, and music, and all five departments collaborate on the all-school musical that sometimes goes on a national tour. Film making students also have access to a 65-piece orchestra for their film scores.

The school has only existed as its own entity in Winston-Salem since 1993, but they have a strong alumni network as evidenced by the fact that many of the alums have collaborated on the same film projects. Also, although the school has no sports teams they still have a mascot: The Fighting Pickle.

Notable Faculty: Dean Susan Ruskin (former producer for George Lucas Films), guest artists Saul Zanetz (Oscar-winning producer), Elmer Bernstein, Mandy Patinkin, Spike Lee, director David Gordon Green (who allows students to shadow him around on set.)

Notable Alumni: David Gordon Green (director of Pineapple Express), Actor Danny McBride, Jody Hill (director of Eastbound and Down, Observe and Report), Jeff Nichols (writer/director of Take Shelter, and the school’s first winner at the Cannes Film Festival.)

8. Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT


Wesleyan only offers a B.A. in film studies, has a steep tuition of nearly $60,000 including room and board, and is over 2 hours from the nearest major cities in Middletown, Connecticut. These facts don’t suggest that Wesleyan is an attractive film school, yet it has still produced some of Hollywood’s greatest artistic visionaries and most successful directors. Last year’s box-office champ The Avengers was directed by cult hero Joss Whedon, who was a Wesley alum. Last year’s indie Oscar darling, and Sundance and Cannes winner, Beasts of the Southern Wild was directed by Wesley Alum Benh Zeitlin, who had 27 other Wesleyan alums work on his film crew (talk about a good alumni network.)

All Wesleyan students are taught to direct, write and edit by hand. Similarly, Michael Bay, considered to be either the scourge of Hollywood or the savior of its commercialism depending on who you talk to, is also an alum. The school follows a liberal arts model which means that, contrary to popular belief, Michael Bay has actually read a book or two in his life.

Notable Faculty: Dean Jeanine Basinger is a noted film preservationist and author. The faculty doesn’t include too many notable names otherwise.

Notable Alumni: Joss Whedon, Michael Bay, Benh Zeitlin, Miguel Artega (writer-director of Chuck and Buck, Youth in Revolt), screenwriter Akiva Goldsman

7. California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, California


Dubbed by the LA Times as “The Harvard Business School of Animation,” the California Institute of the Arts was established in 1961 by Walt and Roy Disney by merging the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music with the Chouinard Art Institute. Located 30 miles north of downtown Los Angeles, most of Cal Arts facilities are located in a 500,000-square-foot building that houses classrooms, music rehearsal space, art and animation studios, photo labs, editing suites, a digital recording studio, and live theaters. Hollywood Reporter notes that two of the five top-grossing films last year, Brave and The Lorax, were directed by Cal Arts alumni, and production designer James Chinlund contributed to The Avengers.

Notable Faculty: Past Dean Alexander MacKendrick (director of Whiskey Galore!, The Ladykillers), Musician Herb Alpert, Jules Engel (animator behind Fantasia,) director Michael Almereyda

Notable Alumni: Brenda Chapman, Tim Burton, James Mangold, John Lassetter, Sofia Coppola, Andrew Stanton (director Finding Nemo, Wall-E)

6. University of Texas, Austin, TX


Aided by Austin’s South by Southwest Festival and Richard Websitelater’s 1991 film Slackers, which helped further glamorize the Austin film scene, Austin has become one of the biggest hotbeds for young filmmakers, and several University of Texas filmmakers have gone on to great success. The Department of Radio-Television-Film is located under the Michener Center MFA program, where filmmakers interact with poets and visual artists, and most students do two internships before they graduate. At less than $5,000 for Texas residents, it’s also one of the cheapest film schools around (non-residents paid $15,995 in 2011, so it’s safe to say that being in-state helps).

Notable Faculty: Shorts director Miguel Alvarez (whose work has won him awards with the Directors Guild of America), graphics artist Ben Bays, Documentarian Nancy Scheisari

Notable Alumni: Wes Anderson, Owen Wilson, Matthew McConaughey, Bruce Hendricks (former President of Physical Production at Walt Disney Studios), Director Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi trilogy, Spy Kids trilogy).

5. Columbia University School of the Arts, MFA Film Program, New York, NY


The only Ivy League school on the list, Columbia embraces the “total filmmaker” approach, wherein all incoming film students are expected to take courses in writing, directing, and producing, as well as history, theory and criticism.  Columbia University has attracted some of the artier filmmakers such as Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right), James Mangold (Walk the Line) and Kimberly Pierce (Boys Don’t Cry.) The MFA film program only accepts 65 students a year out of over 1000 applicants.  They also have a creative producing program which requires producers to learn to direct and write as well.

Notable Faculty: Professor Emeritus Milos Forman, David Klass (screenwriter of Kiss the Girls and Walking Tall,) David Sterritt (Chair of the National Society of Film Critics)  Barbara del Fina (Martin Scorsese’s producer), James Schamus (head of Focus Features studios)

Notable Alumni: Lisa Cholodenko, James Mangold, Kimberly Pierce, Kathryn Bighelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty), James Franco, Simon Kingberg (screenwriter of X-Men: The Last Stand), Greg Mottola (director of Superbad)

4. NYU Tisch School for the Arts, New York, NY


Located in New York, the prestigious and storied Tisch School has graduated many of the iconic film directors that have been associated with New York film making, including Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese. The multi-disciplinary Tisch School doesn’t just guarantee good job placement for its best and brightest students: the Columbus/Vague Film Production Fund awards up to $200,000 to undergraduate alumni and graduate-level thesis students looking for funding for their feature film debut. The program is full-time, and notoriously rigorous.

Notable Faculty: Spike Lee, Buzz Keoing (VP of Focus Features), Clive Davis (who serves as Dean of the Music Department), Eric Gilliland (co-writer of Roseanne), James Franco

Notable Alumni: Spike Lee, Brett Rattner, Martin Scorsese, Christopher Columbus (the director of the first two Harry Potter films), Joel Coen, Todd Phillips (director of The Hangover, Old School), Charlie Kaufman (screenwriter for Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Alec Baldwin, Tony Kushner (screenwriter), Billy Crystal, Debra Messing, Ang Lee, James Franco

3. AFI Film Conservatory, Los Angeles, California


Aside from making and releasing lists, the AFI Film Conservatory in Los Angeles has a highly selective two-year program that accepts only 140 graduate students a year. The school boasts six tracks, and has had massive success with all of them: Producing, Production Design, Screenwriting, Cinematography, Editing, and Directing. They were ranked the #1 film school in the world by the Hollywood Reporter in 2011.

Notable Faculty: Dean Robert Mandel (director of School Ties and The Faculty), Roger Birnbaum (co-founder of Hollywood Studio Spyglass Entertainment), Stephen Lighthill (documentarian), Peter Markham (Assistant Director of The English Patient and 2nd Unit Director of Gangs of New York), Andy Wolk (director of episodes of The Sopranos, Ugly Betty, The Practice)

Notable Alumni: Terrence Malick, Ed Zwick (and producing partner Marshall Herskovitz), Brad Falchuk (Glee, American Horror Story), Darren Aronofsky, Amy Heckerling (director of Clueless), David Lynch, Paul Schrader, Todd Field, Lydia Woodward (executive producer of ER)

2. UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, Los Angeles, CA


Another school located in the heart and center of Hollywood, the UCLA Film Department recently went retooling under Dean Teri Schwartz, where the film school would merge with the drama department in an effort 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” according to The Hollywood Reporter. In contrast to other film departments, the film department uses a more personalized approach, with just 30-35 students a year being admitted. UCLA is also home to a film and television archive whose collection is the second largest next to the Library of Congress, according to UCLA’s promotional materials.

Notable Faculty: Dean Teri Schwartz (former film producer, often partnered with Goldie Hawn), Peter Guber (former Hollywood mogul), Bobby Moresceno (Oscar-winning producer of Crash), Department Chair William McDonald, indie filmmaker Alex D’Lerma

Notable Alumni: Tim Robbins, Alexander Payne, Francis Ford Copolla, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Farris (the directing team behind Little Miss Sunshine), Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean, Rango), Dustin Lance Black (screenwriter for Milk), Mariska Hargity, James Dean

1. USC School of Cinematic Arts, Los Angeles, CA


Founded in 1929, the USC School of Cinematic Arts advertises itself as the first film school in the country. The school was established as a joint venture with the School of Academy Arts and Sciences, the founding faculty includes D.W. Griffith, Cecille DeMille, Ernst Lubitsch, Darryl Zanuck (Head of Fox 20th Century Fox Studios), and Irving Thalberg (MGM,) shortly followed by Frank Capra who was the most successful director of his day. The school is still highly connected to the industry, and arguably has the greatest  alumni base of any film school with more than 10,000 alums, several of whom are very well-established.

Estimates from the Hollywood Reporter are that the school’s alumni had key creative positions in films that grossed a combined $7 billion worldwide and the students collectively produce nearly 250 hours of student film a year (roughly the same output as a Hollywood studio.)  The school’s motto is Limes Regiones Rerum, or “Reality Ends Here.”

Famous Faculty: Jerry Lewis, Nina Foch (Actress from American in Paris) and film critic Leonard Maltin, Director Frank Capra, Dean Larry Truman (Producer of The Graduate)

Famous Alumni: George Lucas, John Singleton, Robert Zemeckis, Producer Brian Grazer, Judd Apatow, James Ivory, Sam Peckinpah, Doug Liman (director of Bourne Identity)

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  1. I’m going to go ahead and toot my own alma mater’s horn, Syracuse University. Among the notable alumni in the industry:

    Dick Clark, Taye Diggs, Peter Falk, Carl Gottleib, Vera Farmiga, Frank Langella, Neal McDonough, Suzanne Pleshette, Jerry Stiller, Tom Everett Scott, Aaron Sorkin, Vanessa Williams, John C. McGinley, Peter Weller, among many more.

    Let’s Go Orange!