The Top 50 Film Schools, Ranked, in 2016

TheWrap’s first annual ranking of the top film schools includes traditional giants USC, NYU, AFI and UCLA — but who else makes the cut?

Film Schools

This story ranking film schools first appeared in the special college issue of TheWrap magazine.

TheWrap’s first-ever ranking of the best film schools was determined by an anonymous poll of 500 entertainment-industry insiders, educators, deans, filmmakers and film pundits, along with interviews with a variety of experts tasked with evaluating each school’s achievements.

Winning film schools landed a spot on TheWrap’s Power Grid, an online ranking of actors, directors, producers, writers and other talent, updated daily. TheWrap also sponsors a series of nationwide campus events in conjunction with the list. Its purpose is to help launch the Spielbergs of our time — literally putting them at the red-hot center of Hollywood.

1. University of Southern California
If you get into USC, you’re the film equivalent of a made guy in the Mafia — a moviemaking star with muscle. USC is like a miniature version of the industry, only it’s massively connected to the real Hollywood, whose direction it affects. Diversity is a hot-button issue in entertainment now, and USC is at the forefront of reform: The Wall Street Journal just voted USC America’s second-most diverse faculty and student body.

“If our industry is going to stay healthy, we’ve got to look more like our country,” said Dean Elizabeth M. Daley, whose 25 years on the job transformed the film school from an underfunded backwater to a rich center of cinema education. Students meet alums like Doug Liman and Shonda Rhimes, while Paul Feig and Judd Apatow show up at the school’s annual Comedy Festival. And they can be on USC’s “SNL”-like TV show, and two recent alums got WGA noms for “Silicon Valley.”

USC’s Entertainment Technology Center is on the bleeding edge of big-data analytics, cloud workflows, virtual reality and augmented reality, and the 250 students in the VR Club are jazzed that USC VR will be installed at this year’s Dubai Film Fest. The founder of Oculus started out at USC’s Mixed Reality Lab, and Jaunt and Oculus have a VR program for current students.

“You can’t stand on what you did in the past,” warns Daley. “We published our first game this year, Tracy Fullerton’s “Walden,” which puts viewers in Thoreau’s shoes. She’s taken it all over the world, including Davos. I’m contented that things are moving forward, and I’m never contented.”

Not every USC film student is content; some complain it’s big and mean, and they feel trampled by the mob racing towards success. That’s showbiz.

2. University of California, Los Angeles
In the last four years, UCLA alums’ films have grossed $7.2 billion. But what good does the success of Gore Verbinski, Alexander Payne, Alex Gibney and Francis Ford Coppola do for today’s students? Well, when Coppola decided to launch his latest creation, the “live cinema” family drama “Distant Vision,” he did it with scores of UCLA students operating 40 cameras and doing everything from set design to producing. Brett Ratner’s Johnny Depp film for Warner Bros., “The Libertine,” was written in UCLA’s Screenwriting 434 class, and students have a first-look arrangement with Sony’s Crackle.

The Theater, Film and Television school has a serious social commitment that can translate into hot products and cold cash. ABC Entertainment’s new president, Channing Dungey, the first African American network chief, helped develop UCLA’s Producers Program’s TV specialization.

TFT just got $2.3 million for full-ride scholarships for Arab and Indian women. Participant Media founder Jeff Skoll gave $10 million to launch TFT’s Skoll Center for Social Impact Entertainment.

Like USC, UCLA sees diversity as a canny commercial move. Critic David Chute, who once worked for UCLA, points to Justin Lin as an archetypical alum: “He is not averse to commercial projects, but he’s strongly influenced by TFT’s diversity — “Fast Five’s” multi-ethnic cast helped it succeed all over the world. That cast is like every other group of students you see walking around UCLA.”

3. American Film Institute
If you liked “Spotlight,” “The Revenant,” “Anomalisa” and “The Hateful Eight,” thank AFI for producing some of their Oscarific honorees. For two years running, AFI grads took both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance. At this year’s Emmys, 50 AFI Fellows (that’s what they call their film students) earned kudos. Since 2015, alums have won 106 major awards, and 81 percent say they’ve found work in their fields.

AFI thesis films have won more Student Emmys than any other school’s, and nobody but AFI has ever swept the Narrative category of the Student Academy Awards. (They did that in 2015, when AFI’s “Share” also won the arguably more prestigious top prize in the Cannes Film Festival Cinéfondation section.)
You want diversity? Almost half the directing fellows are women; the first female superhero movie directed by a woman (“Wonder Woman”) was by the ex-head of AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women; and AFI DWW has a deal with Fox to have female fellows make shorts about its characters. Writer-director Asghar Farhadi is AFI Artist in Residence, and critic Elvis Mitchell just joined the faculty. One-fifth of AFI’s 5,000 grads actively mentor younger fellows.

AFI has had money trouble forever, and the recent acrimonious resignation of Dean Jan Schuette (which happened right when TheWrap’s Best Film School polls went out) is a drag that probably lowered its score this year but won’t affect next year’s class. Still, AFI’s awards are immensely prestigious, and so is everyone touched by its idealistic, innovative indie genius.

4. New York University
Call us retro, but how great is it that Kodak and boutique post shop Film Factory are making it possible for Alex Rockwell’s NYU Film on Film class to shoot on actual film, not digitally? Somewhere, Tarantino is smiling.

There are plenty of modern technologies at NYU, too — Oculus VR, VFX — but students definitely feel they’re in the inspiring footsteps of film-on-film NYU greats like Spike and Ang Lee, Joel Coen, Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese. Applications are up almost 40 percent from 2013, and this year women became as likely to be accepted as men. (In 2001, men had more than twice the chance women did.)

“Applicants have one chance in seven of getting in,” says NYU Tisch School chair Joe Pichirallo. “I couldn’t get in — my scores weren’t high enough.” He did manage to teach at AFI, UCLA and Chapman and serve as VP at Searchlight and Focus, and his higher-scoring students benefit from his teaching chops. Tough competition breeds NYU winners like Jon Watts (“Spider-Man: Homecoming”), Sam Esmail (“Mr. Robot”) and the seven alums with features at Sundance 2016. Pichirallo pointed out that one NYU student, Sean Baker, shot the award-winning “Tangerine” on an iPhone, and another, Colin Trevorrow, made “Jurassic World,” one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. “There are a lot of ways to go,” he said.

5. Columbia University
Sure, we could talk about Columbia’s dazzling grads, like Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, whose Netflix epic “Making a Murderer” won a TCA Award, four Emmys and a place in the national imagination. Or Beau Willimon’s 13-Emmy-nommed “House of Cards,” or Kathryn Bigelow, Nicole Holofcener, Kimberly Peirce, Jennifer Lee and Lisa Cholodenko. (Man, do a lot of high-achieving women come out of NYC’s Columbia – even the new chair, “Man on Wire” producer Maureen Ryan, who took over from 150-movie-making Ira Deutchman, is a woman, and where did she go to school? Columbia.)

But what counts for students is not eminent alums but their teachers, who create the extraordinarily story-oriented, deeply humane and progressive tradition that made the school famous. After all, it was Willimon’s teacher Frank Pugliese, the writing-program head, who shared that Emmy. Prof Katherine Dieckmann’s “Strange Weather” was one of a dozen Columbia-spawned films at Toronto last year. Prof Richard Peña is godfather of the New York Film Festival. Thanks to his brainy Philip Roth adaptation “Indignation,” prof James Schamus is a notable new director, just like his students. And prof and Oscar nominee Annette Insdorf does the liveliest interviews at Telluride and New York’s 92nd St. Y.

6. California Institute of the Arts
We’re not including CalArts just because TheWrap launched its “Breaking Into the Business Live” college events sponsored by IMAX on their Southern California campus. We chose CalArts because they’re changing the future of entertainment in ways that would make founder Walt Disney beam. Not just by launching alums like Pixar/Walt Disney Animation Studios chief creative officer John Lasseter and Oscar winners Chris Buck (“Frozen”) and Tim Burton, but by launching the Lasseters, Bucks and Burtons of tomorrow.
CalArts is about animation, as you’d expect, but that’s not all.

It’s also venturing into 3D initiatives like its student production at Vortex Immersion Media’s downtown L.A. dome dedicated to delivering visionary immersive entertainment content. “Film is a framed medium–it keeps you at arm’s length to the action happening,” Vortex’s Ed Lantz told the L.A. Times. “Domes wrap around you.” So does the creative environment of CalArts.

7. Loyola Marymount School of Film and Television
With one professor for every 12 students, LMU SFTV, run by dean Stephen Ujlaki, a former HBO VP, gives quality time to students. It also hooks up over one third of its students in internships with 400 employers like Sony, Fox, DreamWorks, Disney and Sundance. No wonder its graduate program applications have increased 47 percent and undergrad applications are up an average of 37 percent in the past two years.

LMU makes the most of its beautiful roost looking out over L.A. and nearby Silicon Beach, where 500 tech companies (You- Tube, Snapchat) busily invent the future — with LMU’s help, in a forthcoming state-of-the-art creative facility. Students can also study in Budapest or Bonn, but most want to explore Hollywood.

The Walter Lantz Foundation of Woody Woodpecker fame gave LMU $13 million, and there’s another enormous potential gift tantalizingly, tentatively in the offing. Each year, LMU sends out a screenwriting directory for grads, and some land representation; there’s also a Film Independent SFTV Incubator Lab for grads, and a $10,000 grant for one lucky student.

Like everyone nowadays, LMU emphasizes diversity, running a summer program with the Ghetto Film School and partnering with Big Brothers Big Sisters to offer full-ride scholarships to underserved youth.

8. Chapman University
If Chapman’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts were a scosh further north, or traffic were better, it would likely be higher on this list. “It is far better than UCLA and AFI,” says a successful film educator who wants to stay anonymous and not alienate a current boss. “If I could go anywhere, I would pick Chapman — and I went to USC for my MFA.”

Despite its Orange County address, Chapman is the total Hollywood package: undergrad, grad and production programs with respect for business and marketing; a Digital Media Arts Center for animation and VFX; and this fall, a 38,000-square-foot building for the Documentary MFA program.
Chapman’s indie production company makes $1M-2M features with students in key creative roles, and students own their work.

Everybody’s hailing women filmmakers now, but Chapman has hosted a Women in Focus conference for 17 years. Sick of Hollywood? Chapman has filmmaking exchanges with Taiwan and Korea, regular trips to Busan and NGO doc projects in Africa.

9. Emerson College
It’s pretty weird that Emerson has the most architecturally significant film school building in Los Angeles, a 10-story, $110-million glass-and-aluminum masterpiece on Sunset Blvd. by Pritzker prizewinning architect Thom Mayne. After all, the school used to be stuck way off in a highly depressing Burbank office building, and it’s not a massively endowed school like USC. The lecture halls, theaters, production spaces and dorms with high-tech, power-saving screens outside the building look like a gleaming space ship landing in Tinseltown’s formerly raffish outskirts. And, of course, Emerson still has its far older but still impressive home base in Boston, in a group of buildings overlooking Boston Common.

The school has also come a long way from its origin in 1880, when Charles Wesley Emerson based its original oratory curriculum on his book “The Evolution of Expression.” Boy, has it evolved.

10. (TIE) Savannah College of Art and Design
The astoundingly well-preserved and lovely, classical Old South town of Savannah — think “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” –is dominated by SCAD, which is affiliated with the Savannah Film Festival. It has over 82,000 square feet of moviemaking space, not counting satellite campuses in Atlanta (there’s a 60,000-square-foot digital media center there), Hong Kong and Lacoste, France. Its 12,000 students hail from almost all 50 states, and a quarter of the students are foreigners from 115 countries. In Savannah, 1,700 people work for the school. The 650 profs — 78 full time — give the students quality time, and Hollywood regularly comes a’ recruiting.

10. (TIE) University of North Carolina School of the Arts
Winston-Salem may sound remote, but its film capital UNCSA proved a royal road to Hollywood for Jeff Nichols. He watched how his friend David Gordon Green used the school as a springboard to art-film glory and crafted a $50,000 starter film, “Shotgun Stories,” to make himself a Green-esque indie auteurist.

A UNCSA prof showed him footage of the unknown Michael Shannon, and then both Nichols and Shannon got famous. He wrote and directed 2012’s “Mud” with 11 UNCSA alumni on the crew, helping spark Matthew McConaughey’s comeback. Since then he’s been to Cannes three times, including with last year’s touching “Loving.”

Want to be the next Nichols? Collaborate with UNCSA classmates on 16-mm shorts at its Studio Village soundstage and animation studios, submit them to festivals (like UNCSA’s own RiverRun International Film Festival), then go screen your stuff for L.A. insiders, including big-deal UNCSA alums.

12. University of Texas at Austin
When you walk into the 2017 course taught by prof Scott Rice and 1993 UT alum Matthew McConaughey, you get the book from which they made the 2016 film “Free State of Jones,” the script and a handbook on producing. Except you won’t walk in, because the 30-student class is filled, and the star can’t say precisely when he will appear to help teach, or the course would be even more mobbed than it is now.

The point is not just to dazzle Hollywood hopefuls with glamour, but to show them the tough decisions they’re going to have to make themselves on a set. Jon Hamm, Marcia Gay Harden, F. Murray Abraham, Wes Anderson, Robert Rodriguez and brothers Mark and Jay Duplass went to UT (not all in film), and besides your potentially famous classmates, you’ll meet amazing film folk at Austin’s cool film festival, South by Southwest.

13. Boston University
BU East is enormous, but its L.A. outpost is cozy, located right across from SAG HQ within striking distance of Hollywood names — and studio chiefs and movie stars often make the trip to talk to the 200 BU students. Joe Roth, Lauren Shuler Donner and Nina Tassler are alums.

“Enrollment is up almost across the board with particular interest in TV studies, management and writing,” says Film & Television chief Paul Schneider. “The new 3,000-square-foot Babcock Studio is a huge boost to both cinematography and directing.” One alum is a finalist in the Munich International Student Film Festival; another cast Kathryn Bigelow’s next film; and others landed good jobs at Amazon Studios, Netflix, iTunes Movies, Hulu, Universal and 20th Century Fox.

14. ArtCenter College of Design
The most amazing statistic about this top-rated national fine-arts school is that two years out of school, 90 percent of grads say their job is actually related to their area of study. As you’d expect, the strength of this Pasadena school is visual. You can see ArtCenter mojo in alums Drew Struzan, the titanic poster designer who created the graphic face of Rambo, Indiana Jones and “Star Wars,” and directors Zack Snyder and Michael Bay, whose work is a transformative jolt to the eyeballs.

“Shrek” art director and production designer Guillaume Aretos just joined as entertainment design head. ArtCenter punches above its weight.

15. Stanford University
Stanford documentary prof Jan Krawitz is not one of those who can’t do, so she teaches. Her PBS-aired films, which are in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, earned 15 festival honors and an Emmy nom. She’s had five film retrospective exhibitions nationally and puts Stanford’s academic doc tradition into practical action this spring at Stanford-in-Washington with a new course, Documentary: Films of Persuasion, Advocacy and Change. Of course Hope Hall (’00), who dropped by her class recently, was President Obama’s videographer.

The undergrad and graduate art department film programs are tops, too.

16. Rhode Island School of Design
Besides being the place where young unknown David Byrne poured his heart out to unknown classmate Gus Van Sant, who perhaps influentially encouraged him, this killer school produced Martha Coolidge, Seth MacFarlane and Eric Alan Edwards, DP of “Bosch,” “Knocked Up,” “Kids,” “My Own Private Idaho,” “Flirting With Disaster” and the superb Allen Ginsberg video “Ballad of the Skeletons.”

17. University of California, Santa Barbara
Allison Anders, director of “Gas Food Lodging” and the recent “Beaches” reboot with Idina Menzel, teaches there. Students grow up to be Gregg Araki, James Cameron’s VP of production Geoff Burdick and writer/director Jeff Nathanson, who works with Spielberg.

The film-studies curriculum is so high-powered and theoretical that it once caused a letter-writing furor in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, but there’s more to UCSB than theory.

18. Columbia College Chicago
CCC is an enormous school with generous admission standards and a student body of up to 1,800, which it claims makes it the biggest film school in the nation. They’ve produced talents like HBO Films president Len Amato. However, students should know that CCC also hires massive numbers of adjuncts to teach their courses; many get rave student reviews, but adjuncts can be less focused than full-timers.

Cinema Art and Science chair Bruce Sheridan said the school is “strategically focused on new and future creative and production modes,” and he cited the school’s work at Raleigh Studios in Los Angeles, which he said makes it “the only film school with a permanent teaching unit on a Hollywood lot.”

19. University of Cincinnati Digital Media Collaborative
Although the Digital Media Collaborative at the University of Cincinnati may be only two years old, the programs that comprise it have been around for decades, including the country’s first collegiate broadcast department. In its new approach, students don’t choose a major and stick with courses in one department. The UC DMC involves cross-college partnerships, so digital media students also study in the Colleges of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, the College Conservatory of Music and the College of Arts and Sciences. Graduates of UC include Open Road VP Elliott Slutzky, concept artist George Hull and Sarah Jessica Parker.

20. Berkeley Digital Film Institute
What? A tech-oriented institution in the Bay Area? The intensive 16-week program is all about digital, because founder Patrick Kriwanek said, “I give film 5, 10 more years at most” — in 2011.

Tech types sometimes think change will happen faster than it does, but they tend to be right in the long run. Students get work at LucasFilm, Pixar, DreamWorks and in scads of music videos, like Colin Tilley’s Justin Bieber video “Never Let You Go,” which has about 120 million views on YouTube.

See our comments about the rest of the Top 50 here. The rankings:

21. San Francisco State University
22. Mount Saint Mary’s University
23. School of the Art Institute of Chicago
24. Arizona State University
25. Syracuse University
26. California State University at Northridge
27. Ringling College of Art and Design
28. Northwestern University
29. DePaul University School of Cinematic Arts
30. Wesleyan University
31. Ithaca College
32. Colorado Film School
33. University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee
34. University of Pennsylvania
35. University of Colorado at Denver
36. American University
37. Los Angeles Film School
38. University of Miami
39. Purdue University
40. Cornish College of the Arts
41. University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana
42. Full Sail University
43. Cogswell Polytechnical College
44. Stony Brook Southhampton Filmmaking Program
45. Southern Methodist University
46. Northwest Film Center
47. Montana State University
48. University of Michigan
49. Northwest Film Forum
50. University of Chicago

See the entire college issue here.

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