Top 50 Film Schools of 2020: AFI Conservatory Tops USC in TheWrap’s 5th Annual Ranking

There’s a new No. 1 in TheWrap’s annual ranking of the top schools for moviemaking and storytelling

Top 50 film schools 2020

This ranking of the Top 50 film schools of 2020 first appeared in TheWrap’s fifth annual College Issue.

The American Film Institute Conservatory finished as the top film school in the U.S. in TheWrap’s fifth annual ranking of programs, just ahead of previous No. 1, USC. And while the Top 10 remained fairly consistent from past years, three schools — AFI, Chapman and the University of North Carolina School of the Arts — posted their highest-ever finishes. Meanwhile, Biola University returned to the list after dropping off last year, and Pepperdine made it into our rankings for the first time.

The Wrap’s annual ranking of film schools was determined by an anonymous poll of more than 2,000 entertainment industry insiders, educators, deans, filmmakers and film pundits, along with experts tasked with evaluating each school.

Yes, the list compares apples and oranges, mixing undergraduate and graduate programs and including schools with more than 1,000 students and ones with less than 400. But in a time of turmoil, they are educating the storytellers we need, and we salute them all.

Here’s a breakdown of the top 50 film programs in 2020:

AFI Graduation 2019
AFI Graduation 2019 / Getty Images

1. AFI Conservatory
The small, elite institution that produced David Lynch, Carl Franklin, Patty Jenkins and Julie Dash — and preserved 60,000 priceless historic films now residing in the AFI Collection at the Library of Congress — has plenty to celebrate half a century after it began. It comes after a very bad period when deans came and went amid nasty controversies, and AFI fell to its lowest ranking yet on our 2019 list. But new dean Susan Ruskin, who previously put the University of North Carolina School of the Arts on the national cinematic map, rode to the rescue, and AFI shot to the top of the list for the first time ever, lauded by experts and voters in TheWrap’s poll.

The proof’s in the illustrious alums like Max Barbakow and Andy Siara (Class of 2015), whose “Groundhog Day”-like film “Palm Springs” broke the record for the highest sale at Sundance, or Asher Jelinsky, Hao Zheng and Omer Ben-Shachar (Class of 2018), who swept the Student Academy Awards. With teachers like producer Lianne Halfon (“Juno,” “Ghost World,” “Art School Confidential,” “Crumb”), Oscar-nominated screenwriter Anna Thomas and ASC president and cinematographer Stephen Lighthill, it’s no wonder.

This year, new voices will be joining the faculty, including Dime Davis, who recently made history as the first Black woman nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Variety Series for “A Black Lady Sketch Show.” In AFI’s Harold Lloyd Master Seminars, fellows meet and learn from the likes of Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, Spike Lee, Sofia Coppola, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Joel Coen, Mira Nair and Lesli Linka Glatter. And with gifts from zillionaires like David Geffen, things are looking up on the financial end, too.

2. USC
This year, the USC School of Cinematic Arts may have lost its almost perennial No. 1 spot on our top-film-school lists to the upstart David of AFI — but Hollywood’s Goliath is still very much standing. Its 1,700 students don’t just enter a school, they get entrée to what constitutes a miniature version of the film industry it impacts on a scale no smaller school can match. With the priciest of state-of-the-art facilities, soundstages, edit bays, scoring stage and IMAX theater, students have access to more technology than many cinema professionals, and they can access training in every aspect of the film, TV, and interactive media businesses, from pitch and script development to distribution.

So what happens when it’s all shut down, as COVID controversially forced the school to do? Faculty spent their spring and summer breaks figuring out how to teach production classes online. Programs like writing, video-game design and producing, which are accustomed to online formats, adapted quickly, with students in different time zones and even different countries. And USC called in the big guns. Heavy-hitter alumni like Ryan Coogler, Stacey Sher, Kevin Feige, Tina Mabry and Judd Apatow, who were themselves pivoting during the pandemic, Zoomed in to classes and for special Q&A conversations with students. Events like graduation, film festivals and a video game expo that usually brings hundreds of participants to campus drew thousands of participants online.

Though the crisis shuttered the school’s film productions (like the industry itself), and there was some reputational damage from USC scandals not SCA’s fault, Dean Elizabeth Daley — one of the most powerful fundraisers in American education — said, “We always say our students are set-ready. Now we can say they are COVID-ready, meaning they know how to work remotely and in virtual environments.” But boy, will it be better when everyone can return to campus and get back to the hard work of taking over the world.

NYU Tisch School of the Arts
NYU Tisch School of the Arts

3. NYU
NYU Tisch School of the Arts’ Maurice Kanbar Institute of Film and Television is reconvening in person for the fall semester, announcing rigorous measures to prevent, track and respond to COVID infections. NYU is offering classes in a mixed mode to enable students to participate in person or remotely, and is prioritizing flexibility should conditions change. All film classes will have a remote option, with opportunities for small group or one-on-one meetings on campus, and the school has introduced strict production rules to promote student safety.

Faculty, staff and students make more than 5,000 films a year, and outside of L.A., nobody can match NYU’s parade of film geniuses: Spike Lee, Chris Columbus, Joel Coen, Morgan Spurlock, Ryan Fleck (“Captain Marvel”), cinematographer Rachel Morrison (“Black Panther”), Vince Gilligan (“Breaking Bad”), Damon Lindelof (“Watchmen”), “Pulp Fiction” editor Sally Menke and Nia DaCosta, the first Black woman to direct a Marvel film (“Captain Marvel 2”). Alum Nicole Kassell’s “Watchmen” hit the bullseye of the zeitgeist and set the year’s Emmy nomination record with 26; Jon Watts’ “Spider-Man” films have grossed over $1 billion; and Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” and its star Frances McDormand are front-runners at this year’s Oscars. NYU’s $2.25 million Black Family Film Foundation awards $150,000 in production grants, and the incoming freshman class in the undergraduate program is 55% female for the second year in a row.

New courses: First Person Narrative, geared to individual and family stories; New Korean Cinema; and Storytelling Strategies: From Aristotle to Beyoncé and Beyond.

Chapman dean Stephen Galloway
Chapman Dean Stephen Galloway, center / Chapman University

4. Chapman University
Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts recently hired the second dean in its 25-year history, ex-Hollywood Reporter executive editor and Emmy-winning producer Stephen Galloway. New initiatives include the Master Classes, open to students and alumni, with the likes of Judd Apatow (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”), William Friedkin (“The Exorcist”), CAA chairman Richard Lovett, producer Nina Jacobson (“Crazy Rich Asians”) and Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter (“Black Panther”).

Galloway, who ran THR’s mentorship program, introduced the new Chapman Mentorship Program to create a pipeline for brilliant youngsters from underserved communities to work with Chapman students and professors and enroll as undergraduates, with new scholarship money from producer Chuck Lorre and Spotify, among others. Also new: 16 incoming professors of color, including 11 women, and nine Black lecturers. Ex-CAA agent Joe Rosenberg and Friends producer and longtime faculty star Jill Condon are launching an ambitious careers office to connect students with internships and mentors. There’s never been a better time for a film grad to get outta Dodge — and into Hollywood.


Blessed with a low 9-to-1 student/faculty ratio, UNCSA’s School of Filmmaking looks like a little Hollywood studio lot, and it really is like one — maybe with less ruthless cruelty, though students can probably hear stories about that from A-list Hollywood survivors like Ava DuVernay. Students collaborate with UNCSA’s top-ranked School of Drama and have access to several soundstages and animation facilities. They benefit from partnerships with RiverRun International Film Festival, Sundance and others.

The school covers the cost of senior thesis films and says its tuition (as low as $6,497) is about half the cost of other premiere film schools. During COVID, classes will be delivered in a hybrid of online and face-to-face components, using technologies that enable remote workflows ( and Set.a.Light 3D Studio). Interim Dean Henry Grillo helped increase enrollment 42% in 10 years, and UNCSA has expanded resources in motion-, hand-, and face-capture, effects technologies and game engine integration into filmmaking. Liked Doug Trumbull’s visual-effects work on “2001,” “Close Encounters,” “Star Trek,” “Blade Runner” and “The Tree of Life?” He’s collaborating with UNCSA to explore immersive storytelling techniques.

6. Columbia University
Columbia University School of the Arts, whose 72 MFA students focus on directing, writing or producing in either traditional film or the Digital Storytelling Lab, are all out to follow in the footsteps of alumni Kathryn Bigelow, Jennifer Lee, Phil Johnson, James Mangold and “Making a Murderer” writer/directors Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi. There’s also a BA and MA in film studies.

This year, seven students had films at Toronto, six in the Cannes lineup, 23 at Sundance, 10 that would have gone to SXSW and two at the Venice International Film Festival, where four alumni won the Orizzonti Award for Best Short Film for “Darling.” Melina León’s debut, “Canción Sin Nombre (Song Without a Name)” screened at more than 80 international film festivals and won more than 30 awards, including the New Voices/New Visions Award in Palm Springs. Prof. Trey Ellis’ historical doc “King in the Wilderness” won the Emmy and his “True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality” won a Peabody, as did “The Edge of Democracy,” on which current student Moara Passoni served as an executive producer. Grads populate sets and writers’ rooms at Amazon, Disney, Hulu, Netflix, HBO, ABC, CBS, NBC and abroad. This year, School of the Arts filmmakers received five Oscar nominations (winning two), 10 Emmy nominations and three Golden Globe nominations.

UCLA immersive AR

UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television has spawned alumni both venerable (Francis Ford Coppola, Eric Roth) and au courant (Gina Prince-Bythewood, Steven Canals, Marielle Heller, Justin Lin) — and if they were there now, they’d start the year attending classes remotely. When students come back to campus (pandemic conditions permitting), they’ll plunge into the new Media Arts Lab, equipped for the production and viewing of virtual reality, augmented reality, 360-degree video, projection mapping and interactive installations.

There’s good news, like the new Forever Sunny Directing Scholarship giving a lucky female filmmaker four years’ financing. But the film school’s stellar reputation took a hit from an eight-year UCLA Academic Senate review, in which eminent educators (including LMU’s film dean) found that it was plagued by feuding factions. But it also found that students praised their close advising relationships with faculty, and it seems likely UCLA’s multiprize-winning film team will take off the gloves, find peace under a new dean replacing Teri Schwartz (who left after 10 years in 2019) and soar again, while its interim dean, Brian Kite, pilots the program through the choppy waters. Another reason UCLA’s future is bright as Hollywood enters the rainbow era: More than 60% of its students and teachers are people of color.

LMU dean Peggy Rajski
LMU dean Peggy Rajski / Getty Images

8. LMU
LMU’s School of Film and Television is undeniably growing under Dean Peggy Rajski. More students, including 89 incoming graduate students, the most ever. Ten new teachers, including four faculty of color. More courses: augmented reality/virtual reality, monetizing digital content, punk and queer cinema, animators paired with English majors to improve story quality.

LMU opened its expansive Playa Vista grad-school campus in 2018, and in 2021 it’s opening the 24,000-square-foot Howard B. Fitzpatrick Pavilion, with labs, an AR/VR teaching area, and an 86-seat theater. It’s grown its partnerships with Film Independent and Village Roadshow Entertainment Group to give grads mentorship and moola. Want diversity? Most of the students and 40% of the faculty are nonwhite, including screenwriting prof Michelle Amor Gillie — lead author of the famous #DearHollywood letter that helped change the place. Long before Chicago elected its first Black woman mayor, her show about one, The Honorable, was optioned by CBS.

9. CalArts
Though most renowned for character animation, CalArts’ School of Film/Video has four distinct programs, all of which have churned out award-hogging alumni. Indie film writer/directors Eliza Hittman (“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”), Andrew Ahn (“Driveways,” “Spa Night”), and Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias (“Cocote”) are perennial favorites at Sundance. Alumni working in zeitgeisty TV include producer Rhys Ernst (“Transparent”) and director Nijla Mu’min (“Insecure,” “Queen Sugar”).

CalArts is well-known for its minimalist documentary style, exemplified in the work of multidisciplinary artist Deborah Stratman and experimental filmmaker Laida Lertxundi. Mainstream animation’s gonzo cousin experimental animation trains filmmakers in stop-motion animation (Henry Selick), interactive live performances (Miwa Matreyek), and abstract and handmade films.

Mojave Ghost ArtCenter College of Design
“Mojave Ghost” by Roxee Jeong from ArtCenter College of Design course The Power of Pleasure, taught by Matthew Rolston

10. ArtCenter College of Design
As alum Michael Bay exemplifies, it’s a good career move to train alongside advertising and graphic design people at ArtCenter or in the Media Maker’s Lab, a collaboration between advertising and film departments. You can deconstruct Coen brothers films in a Visual Literacy in Film course taught by “The Wire” writer/co-director Joy Kecken, or take ArtCenter’s newest course, Powerful Black Voices in Film, by writer/director Shannon Bennett. Director/cinematographer Ericson Core (“The Fast and the Furious,” “Point Break”) credits his success to “often grueling” ArtCenter, which “developed skills that empowered us to say what we wanted with clarity and precision.”

"G.R.I.T.S. (Girls Raised in the South)"
“G.R.I.T.S. (Girls Raised in the South)” / SCAD

11. Savannah College of Art and Design
SCAD’s Savannah and Atlanta programs put over 500 students a year in front of and behind the camera in Georgia’s multibillion-dollar film industry: Barry Jenkins’ “The Underground Railroad,” Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man,” Julie Taymor’s “The Glorias,” Ryan Murphy’s “The Politician” and Joan Rater and Tony Phelan’s “Council of Dads.” Samantha Geis (’18) won a 2018 DGA Award as the best female student filmmaker, and SCAD’s all-woman, African-American sitcom team produced a show called “G.R.I.T.S. (Girls Raised in the South).” More than 200 SCAD alumni and students contributed to 21 nominated films at the 2020 Oscars. There’s a full-time casting office and an annual film festival that’s screened more than 100 Oscar-nominated films. SCAD’s entertainment dean Andra Reeve-Rabb was CBS Primetime New York casting director, film and TV chair D.W. Moffett is a SAG- and Peabody-winning actor/director (“Traffic,” “Bosch,” “Chicago Med,” “How to Get Away With Murder”).

12. University of Texas at Austin
The UT Moody College of Communication’s Department of Radio-Television-Film (RTF), located in what MovieMaker magazine claims is the best U.S. city in which to make movies, is certainly one of the lowest-cost schools with a first-rate reputation and starry alums: Matthew McConaughey (who teaches there, too), Wes Anderson, Renée Zellweger, the Duplass brothers, Tommy Schlamme, Jordan Levin, Jennifer Howell, Michael Barker and “Get Out” executive producer Raymond Mansfield. The department chair is Noah Isenberg, a veteran of New York’s New School and Wesleyan. RTF is one of the biggest UT departments, with 1,000 undergrads and 160 grad students; it boasts a TV Writer’s Room class that creates a season of a new show that is then pitched to major networks. RTF got Screenwriting MFA Bob Rearden an internship with Rob Thomas, then writing jobs on Veronica Mars and iZombie. He calls the department “a really great mix of both the theoretical and the practical — both of which have been essential to getting a foot in the door in Hollywood.”

Will Packer and Kevin Hart at Florida State University / Getty Images

13. Florida State University
With a 5-to-1 student/faculty ratio and tuition as low as $7,238 (in-state undergraduate), FSU launches alums who have gone on to hit the cinematic jackpot: “The Maze Runner” director Wes Ball and writer T.S. Nowlin, “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk” director Barry Jenkins, producer Adele Romanski (Jenkins’ movies and Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”), “When They See Us” executive producer Jonathan King and Marvel executive Stephen Broussard. This year, veteran sound designer Pete Winter (“Ulee’s Gold,” “Ruby in Paradise”) joins the faculty. The film, engineering and computer sciences colleges collaborate on game-engine pipelines and software for previsualizing animated and live-action films. There’s a new $10,000 Torchlight Diverse Voices in Cinema Grant, an Equity Scholarship and annual diversity events. Unless things change, all experiential coursework will be face-to-face, not virtual.

14. Columbia College Chicago
Columbia College Chicago’s Department of Cinema and Television Arts Department just got a new chair, Thelma Vickroy, who was the sole woman in her film class at Cal State Fullerton in the ’70s, one of three women at NYU in the ’80s and an award-winning documentarian. In her last job as cinema/TV chair at Cal State Northridge, she built a department with a growing reputation and comprising more than 50% women. Her CCC students are mentored by professionals in serious facilities, work on production lots in Chicago and Los Angeles and tap an engaged alumni network. Grads include producer/actor/screenwriter Lena Waithe (“Ready Player One,” “Master of None,” “Queen & Slim”), director Carl Seaton (“Chicago PD,” “Batwoman”), cinematographer/director/editor Michael Goi (“Glee,” “American Horror Story”), Emmy-winning cinematographer Christian Sprenger (“Atlanta”) and gaffer Cody Jacobs (“Atlanta,” “GLOW,” “Baskets”).

Emerson Student Academy Awards
Emerson student Georgen West wins a Student Academy Awards, 2019 / AMPAS

15. Emerson College
The 1,700 students in Emerson’s Visual and Media Arts are found on its Boston home campus, noted for its new Emerging Media Lab; the beautiful 107,000-square-foot Emerson Los Angeles campus on Sunset; the Paris College of Art, partnered with Emerson on a new three-year MFA program that also involves study in Emerson’s castle in the Netherlands; and Prague’s Academy of Performing Arts for Film and Television (FAMU), where Roman Polanski began and Emerson has a summer program. Emerson, with 24% students of color and 50% women, is working to increase diversity, and the latest course is María Agui Carter’s Art of Anti-Racist Media Making. Norman Lear provides four-year scholarships for gifted students from underrepresented backgrounds. Alumni: Jay Leno, Richard LaGravenese and Adele Lim (“Crazy Rich Asians”).

16. Ithaca College
Ithaca’s Roy H. Park School of Communications has sent students to jobs at dozens of high-profile TV shows, news shows, and big-deal entertainment companies. Interim dean Jack Powers, who advises CBS, ABC, FOX and Netflix on new shows (and even appeared on “Modern Family” and “The Odd Couple”), says students should prepare to do the following: “1) Spend a semester abroad in London or elsewhere interning; 2) spend a semester in Los Angeles as part of our L.A. Program and obtain one or two high-profile internships; 3) work each semester on one or more of our 20-plus television shows produced for ICTV; 4) engage in other media activities including working on-air or behind the scenes at one of our two radio stations, newspaper, alternative magazine, professional communications production company, etc.” There are 13,000 Park grads out there to reach out to, many in New York and Los Angeles industry strongholds.

Josh and Benny Safdie
Boston University alumni Josh and Benny Safdie / Getty Images

17. Boston University
Though BU’s College of Communications’ film and television programs have been impacted by COVID-19, the school has managed to continue teaching production courses in person to 650 undergrads and 80 M.S., M.A., and M.F.A. students. The program focuses on four critical areas: studies, writing, production and management/producing. Students explore the history of both film and television mediums to learn from those who came before them, practice the art of storytelling through their screenwriting courses, then apply what they learned in their production courses. BU FTV alums include Paramount chief Jim Gianopulos, “Uncut Gems” auteurs Josh and Benny Safdie, Bonnie Hammer and Bonnie Arnold.

18. Northwestern University
COVID failed to sidetrack Northwestern’s Department of Radio/Television/Film, which hooks up its budding writers, actors, and directors with Chicago’s vibrant arts scene. Recent alum highlights: Will Arbery was a Pulitzer finalist for “Heroes of the Fourth Turning”; Attica Locke was a writer and producer on Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere” and Netflix’s “When They See Us”; Jenny Hagel, Jen Spyra, Ally Hord, Seth Meyers, and Stephen Colbert were Emmy nominees; Desus and Mero writer Ziwe Fumudoh hosts a viral sensation Instagram Live show; and recent grad Charlie Hall’s web series “Sorry, Charlie” has been viewed more than 50,000 times. Professor Jeffrey Sconce got the department’s eighth Guggenheim, Thomas Bradshaw was a consulting producer on “When They See Us” and three films by faculty member Stephen Cone were featured in the Criterion Collection.

"Dreamcentered" by Maia Buljeta and Kaija Harrison
“Dreamcentered” by Maia Buljeta and Kaija Harrison / Rhode Island School of Design

19. Rhode Island School of Design
RISD was recently rated the fifth-best art school in America, and that context informs its film/animation/video department. Star alumnus Gus Van Sant is a Hollywood great, but he remains a painter and visual artist at heart (and his remake of “Psycho” was a Warhol homage). Like many RISD talents (say, his classmate David Byrne), he’s out to radically reimagine the world through his art. “Film is a device for communication and a platform for change,” said current student Maia Buljeta, who made the animated documentary “Dreamcentered” with classmate Kaija Harrison using illustrations by kids from Providence’s refugee center. RISD is re-imagining itself during COVID by “de-densifying” its campus and instituting disinfecting regimens. The bright side: It’s easier to get visiting academics and critics to participate online than it was in person.

20. Syracuse University
SU’s Department of Transmedia has produced industry leaders now running things at DreamWorks, Pixar, Sony Pictures, Yahoo, Apple, Showtime and HBO. Grads have screened their films at Sundance, Slamdance, MOMA and the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. Besides the six-week summer L.A. Semester internship program, SU students study in London, Prague, Florence, Bologna, Venice, Santiago, and Moscow. Alumni include Lila Yacoub and Danny Zuker.

Amal by Dilek Ince
CSUN student film Amal by Dilek Ince

21. California State University, Northridge
CSUN’s Department of Cinema and Television Arts (CTVA) trains students in the art, craft and technology of filmmaking, television production (narrative and documentary), screenwriting, VR and emerging media, entertainment media management and media theory and criticism. The department boasts two dedicated soundstages and a new green-screen stage and VR lab. This academic year, its emerging media program will be rolling out classes in Unity’s VR development platform for shooting live mo-cap in real-time environments. VFX producer Brooke Noska (“American Horror Story,” “Barry”) got an Emmy nomination for “The Orville,” and editor Ryan Malick (“Project Runway,” “RuPaul’s Drag Race”) got his fifth in eight years, and his first win. Dilek Ince ’18 won a DGA Student Award and the BAFTA for her short film “Amal”; Jared White’s “100 Years From Home” premiered on PBS; and MFA screenwriting grad Talicia Raggs is writing the CBS pilot for “Never Tell,” an upcoming series based on Stacey Abrams’ best-seller.

22. Ringling College of Art and Design
Now 15 years old, the Ringling Film Department headed by Bradley Battersby has a new Studio Labs Soundstage and Post-Production Complex, permitting students to continue film production while allowing for 36,000 square-feet of social distancing. The three-building complex provides five large soundstages for set construction and production, multiple edit suites, dubbing and Foley stages, live mix and pre-recording suites, a color correct theater, classrooms and meeting spaces. The fall term concentrates on preproduction courses (screenwriting, business, production planning and design), a mix of one-on-one instruction, online lectures and in-person studio instruction. Students have worked on recent films with Beau Bridges, Kevin Smith, Dylan McDermott and Justin and Christian Long, and graduates work in animation at Pixar, Blue Sky Studios and Paramount. Dozens of guest artists have done virtual lectures and workshops during the epidemic.

23. Wesleyan University
What’s a first-rate film program doing at a liberal arts college for brainiacs? Thank the founder of Wesleyan’s College of Film and the Moving Image, Jeanine Basinger. A student of hers said, “It’s an example of a small college taking a chance on a woman lecturer who made up in enthusiasm for what she lacked in formal academic credentials, sticking with her through her doctoral thesis, and eventually awarding her tenure. In return, she oversaw the creation of the most innovative film studies program in the country. Believe me when I say this could not have happened at Yale.” There’s a new, 16,000-square-foot Basinger Center for Film Studies with a soundstage and theater. Alumni include Michael Bay, Joss Whedon, Akiva Goldsman, D.B. Weiss, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jon Turteltaub.

24. UC Santa Barbara
Despite COVID, UCSB’s Carsey-Wolf Center, endowed by Marcy Carsey and Dick Wolf, is still an important place in the film world — it recently hosted New York Times critic Manohla Dargis and Alison Kozberg’s virtual lecture “Moviegoing in the Age of COVID-19.” UCSB hosts the excellent AFI Routledge film book series and gives students entrée to Hollywood. Said film and media major Kyrié Howard, who interned at J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions, “During my internship, I was able to help with some of the projects, including a campaign video for Michelle Obama. Once a week, we also had lessons where we were taught about production, setup and even worked on content for their social media platforms.”

Stanford's Jeff Orlowski
Stanford’s Jeff Orlowski photographed by Chris Loupos for TheWrap

25. Stanford University
Even if you’re not one of the eight students accepted into Stanford’s MFA program in documentaries — famously the strength of its film department, whose grads often get their films on PBS and in film festivals, win scads of Student Academy Awards and get hired by HBO and others — you can be an undergrad filmmaker and do fine. And the proximity to the Stanford-spawned Silicon Valley scene can’t hurt. Jeff Orlowski’s undergrad work led to his documentary on vanishing glaciers, “Chasing Ice,” which won at Sundance, SXSW and the Emmys and was nominated for an Oscar. It also landed him work with Apple, National Geographic and Obama’s White House. Then he made a social-media doc, “The Social Dilemma,” with his Stanford pal and Google ethicist Tristan Harris. “Many of my friends went to work at different tech companies coming out of school. I went down the film route,” said Orlowski, who used film to change the world.

26. University of Arizona
“When you look at the films that have come out of this program in the last 10 years, you realize a good story and a little savvy go a long way,” said Adrian Meyer, a 2020 grad from UA’s School of Theater, Film and Television. It’s a real community: When the pandemic shut down mixing stages, prof Lisanne Skyler got her Emmy-winning sound mixer friend Scott Weber (“Westworld,” “Lost”) to create a virtual mixing platform connecting UA filmmakers to his Burbank studio to complete their films in Dolby 5.1 for the first online edition of its annual film showcase I Dream in Widescreen — normally a capacity event at the Fox Tucson Theatre. In the two-day digital fest organized by new advancement director Kerryn Negus and kicked off by Netflix’s Scott Stuber, online audiences listened to conversations with UA alumni: Lindsay Utz, editor of Oscar-winning “American Factory,” “Scream 5″‘s Tyler Gillett, Sundance programmer Mike Plante, WME partner Brad Slater, casting director Eyde Belasco (“Sorry to Bother You,” “Transparent”) and YouTube star Darious Britt. The school has a social conscience, as evidenced by alumna showrunner Sierra Ornelas (“Superstore,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Rutherford Falls”) and her #Donation4NavajoNationChallenge, which raised $250,000 for medical supplies, PPE and other lifesavers for Navajo citizens.

Los Angeles Film School's Spotlight Awards
Los Angeles Film School’s Spotlight Awards / Getty Images

27. Los Angeles Film School
Located in the historic RCA Building and environs on Sunset, the for-profit Los Angeles Film School is at the heart of the industry and offers both online and on-campus instruction. No ivory tower, it’s meant to “bridge the gap between the entertainment industry and its instruction.” This year, more than 30 alumni worked on 35 productions that earned 193 Emmy nominations. Distinguished grads include Oscar-nominated editor Martin Pensa (“Dallas Buyers Club,” “Wild”), Emmy-winning “Saturday Night Live” director Osmany Rodriguez and computer animation grad Damian Szeibert, a 3D modeler and sculptor who brings Disney and Pixar characters to life.

Pratt Institute
Pratt Institute

28. Pratt Institute
Pratt sent two films to Sundance this year: alum Michael Dweck’s “The Truffle Hunters” and professor and writer/director Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” which won honors there and also at the Berlin and Zurich film fests. Alum Liz Hannah, after working in development for Charlize Theron’s company, struggled for years as a screenwriter, then had her spec script “The Post” land at No. 2 on the Black List and get snapped up by Amy Pascal for Steven Spielberg to direct. He got an Oscar nomination, she a Golden Globe nom and a WGA award. “I’m the one in a million,” Hannah said. True, but other Pratt grads show films at Toronto and Tribeca, or work at MTV, USA Networks, Entertainment Weekly or the New Yorker.

29. San Francisco State University
Founded in 1967, the School of Cinema teaches history, theory, criticism and production to develop students’ personal voices. During the pandemic, there’s still a monthly screening from the Archive Project, focused this year on race, rebellion and resistance. The $10 million Marcus Fund for Excellence in Cinema renovated facilities, bought new ARRI, 16mm and VR/AR cameras and endowed two new Chairs in Social Justice Fiction Filmmaking (Mayuran Tiruchelvam) and African American Cinema Studies (Artel Great). Alumni include Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, the late Barbara Hammer, Debbie Lum, Steven Okazaki, Jonas Rivera, Cauleen Smith and Steven Zaillian.

30. Rutgers
Rutgers Filmmaking, part of the Mason Gross School of the Arts, operates on a conservatory model at a Big Ten research university of 40,000 souls. Two hundred applicants vie for 26 spots in Rutgers’ film program, which is located at its New Brunswick campus, and applications are growing 28% annually. The Documentary Film Lab, led by Thomas Lennon (who’s won an Oscar and two Emmys and sent two films to Sundance) sends students to work on projects from Antarctica to Zambia. Alum Zack Morrison won the College Emmy awards, and three students went to the Telluride Film Festival Student Symposium. Thanks to the recently opened New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, Rutgers Filmmaking now has a 300-seat movie theater. There’s a new $20,000 graduating student film grant with access to Rutgers production facilities. Students and grads work at SNL, MUBI, CNN, Disney, CBS, Sony Pictures, Panasonic, NBC, BBC, Searchlight and the Tribeca Film Festival — and recent grads are working on Debra Granik’s next film.

SVA John Waters
John Waters’ commencement address at SVA

31. School of Visual Arts
At SVA’s 2020 commencement — which was virtual instead of at Radio City Music Hall — speaker John Waters hailed the graduates as “COVID-19 commandos” and said, “You can change history with one ludicrous idea. While you’re still young, maybe it’s time to become a virus yourself — a good kind of virus, one fueled by the years of hard work you put in at the incubator known as the School of Visual Arts. Artists, you are the cure, too. The only people that can inspire the world to notice and then alter its destructive behavior.” SVA screenwriters typically graduate with two full-length screenplays, a TV spec script or pilot, an adaptation and a trove of short scripts. Grads wind up at Disney Animation Studios, DreamWorks, Warner Bros. Animation, Blue Sky Studios, Nickelodeon, Lucasfilm Animation and Sony Pictures Animation. Alum Joe Ralko took a finance-office clerk job on CBS’ “Blue Bloods” and wound up selling his film to DirecTV. Alumni from the for-profit school include Harris Savides, Bryan Singer, the late Lynn Shelton, “Homeland” director Michael Cuesta and “Lars and the Real Girl” director Craig Gillespie.

32. University of Miami
Sure, UM is proud of alums Stallone and the Rock — but there’s more to the place than that, said Miami Department of Cinematic Arts chair Christina Lane, whose terrific new book, “Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, the Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock” is a fit rival to UM teacher Scott Eyman’s new book “Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise.” For starters, there are alums Kyle Patrick Alvarez (“13 Reasons Why,” “Stanford Prison Experiment”), Ozzy Inguanzo (“Bathtubs Over Broadway”) and Omar Lugones (“Celebrity Justice”) and “Brain Games” host Jason Silva. Or midcareer alumni on the business side: Sony’s John Weiser, Orion’s John Hegeman and Epix’s Rachel Brill. Students win multiple Sundance honors, and two sold their thesis films to HBO. Heading the Games Division is Lindsay Grace, who won the Games for Change Festival Vanguard Award. Despite COVID, UM teacher Betsy Helf Mateu said, “We’ve prepared our students well enough to have the skills to adapt as the industry emerges from this.”

33. Hofstra University
Hofstra’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication offers proximity to New York’s film scene, and starting their first year, students have full run of three soundstages at the school, as well as a Foley/ADR studio and a postproduction color-correction suite. Hofstra has programs in Los Angeles, Cuba, Rome and New York, and alumni to emulate: Francis Ford Coppola, Phil Rosenthal, Avi Arad, Paramount Television’s Debra Bergman, Dick Clark Production’s Mark Bracco, Magical Elves’ Jo Sharon, Dawn Olmstead (UCP and Wilshire Studios), Steve Kullback (“Game of Thrones”) and rising stars like Dan Farah (“Ready Player One”), Brit DeLillo (“Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey”), Black List-noted screenwriter Ben Mehlman (“Whittier”) and show creators like Kieran Valla (“Little Demon”).

Berkeley's Carrie Lozano

34. University of California, Berkeley
The Department of Film & Media Department’s new chair is Jeffrey Knapp, who used to run Berkeley’s English department (ranked No. 1 in America) and who just published his first movie book, “Pleasing Everyone: Mass Entertainment in Renaissance London and Golden-Age Hollywood.” Clearly, the scholarly side of this Bay Area cinema hotbed, where Film Quarterly and at least three other major journals were born, is in good hands. The film department also collaborates with the top-rated journalism school, so Berkeley is a documentary powerhouse, with lecturer Carrie Lozano recently appointed director of the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program. Over 20 Berkeley journalism grads got 2020 Emmy honors. In one week this July, PBS aired two docs worked on by Berkeley students, both from its Chronicling COVID-19 project, and Netflix’s recent doc “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez” came from UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program.

35. Stony Brook University
The Stony Brook Manhattan Center for Creative Writing and Film, led by Magdalene Brandeis, boasts artistic director Christine Vachon of Killer Films and TV writing chief Alan Kingsberg, who was lured away from Columbia and has created a new MFA program. His 4-year-old undergrad program’s first graduating class has a writer working at Levinson/Fontana on Showtime’s “City on a Hill.” James Sharpe ’18 single-handedly produced “Tom of Your Life,” which Richard Roeper calls one of his favorite films of 2020. Instruction is mostly online, with some in person; the pandemic has increased guest speakers (John Sloss, Ted Hope, James Schamus, Janet Pierson, Michael Arndt, UTA’s Rena Ronson and Endeavor Content’s Kevin Iwashina) and Brandeis said there’s a post-COVID uptick in the number and quality of applicants. New this fall: the eight-month Social Impact Filmmakers certificate program.

DePaul University
DePaul University

36. DePaul University
Chicago may be far from Hollywood and Manhattan, but it’s a regional production giant. DePaul School of Cinematic Arts students prepare to join the industry at a little film studio of their own, with three soundstages, green-screen cycloramas, a scenic shop, Arri and RED cameras, a three-ton grip truck, motion-capture and stop-motion stages, and editing suites and mixing studios. The facilities are located at the Loop Campus and at DePaul’s 32,000-square-foot production facility in Cinespace Chicago Film Studios, which is also used by “Fargo,” “Empire” and Dick Wolf’s Chicago shows. There’s a joint program with Second City (which spawned Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey). Alexis Auditore, a member of SCA’s first graduating class, directs physical production at Marvel Studios Streaming; alum Daniel Willis grew up on the South Side and now directs for “Grey’s Anatomy.”

37. New York Film Academy
The for-profit film school with programs in L.A., Miami, Australia, Florence, Beijing and Shanghai sends its grads’ films to the Sundance, Toronto, Cannes, SXSW and Venice film festivals. Recent NYFA alums helped bring you “Tiger King” and Awkwafina’s “The Farewell.” “The Devil All the Time” director Antonio Campos got his start at NYFA — at age 13. “I lied about my age,” he said. Since the pandemic, NYFA added 16 online filmmaking workshops in four-to-15-week stints.

38. School of the Art Institute of Chicago
The SAIC Film, Video, New Media, and Animation department (FVNMA) was going great guns until the pandemic trimmed revenue by a projected $25 million, causing the loss of over 100 jobs and temporary closure of the Gene Siskel Film Center, the public face of SAIC. But director Jean de St. Aubin said the school is “not in jeopardy. We had a board meeting and the feeling was unanimous: We’re going to get through this.” SAIC’s Black Harvest Film Festival was rescheduled from August to November, and though the Siskel Center is dark, SAIC’s Film Center From Your Sofa streams on, with Facebook filmmaker Q&As to watch in your sweatpants.

Bruce Dern
University of Pennsylvania alum Bruce Dern

39. University of Pennsylvania
The University of Pennsylvania film program traces its roots back to the pre-film days of Eadweard Muybridge. Today, Penn offers a full curriculum in production, animation, screenwriting, virtual reality, game design and history and theory. The programs take students to the Cannes Film Festival annually and offer summer internships and an annual screenwriting contest that arranges for the winners to pitch their scripts. Notable alumni include former studio heads Stacey Snider and Rich Ross, actors Bruce Dern, Elizabeth Banks and Candice Bergen, producers Todd Lieberman and Michael Rauch and writer Matt Selman.

40. American University
The AU School of Communication Film and Media Arts division offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in media arts and production. At the nation’s red-hot political center, it’s all about film’s impact on society. The MA in production is a 24-month program, the MFA in film and media arts a 36-month one. There are concentrations in environmental and wildlife filmmaking; political, cultural and social impact; art in entertainment; or games and interactivity. AU also has a partnership with the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague.

41. University of Michigan
The Department of Film, Television and Media at the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts has a world-class Orson Welles archive and sends alums to positions of power at Netflix, AMC, Comedy Central, Fox, Amazon and Warner Bros. Their pilots sell to HBO, AMC, and Hulu. They write for “black-ish,” “House of Cards” and “One Day at a Time.” “The program at Michigan really helps prepare you for the industry,” said Kelci Parker, senior manager of comedy originals at Hulu. “You’re told ‘no’ the same way you are in Hollywood. You get real budgets, and you have to figure that out. All of my friends who came out of Michigan are working in L.A. or New York and are really successful.”

42. Full Sail University
Full Sail’s undergrad and graduate film programs balance the creative aspects of world building and storytelling with the practical aspects of running a production. At this year’s Academy Awards, 149 graduates were credited on 24 nominated films, and 40 of them had credits on Oscar-winning films. Gary Rizzo won Oscars for sound mixing for both 2011’s “Inception” and 2018’s “Dunkirk.” In 2019, more than 200 Full Sail grads worked on Emmy-nominated shows, including “Game of Thrones,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Ozark” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Notable alumni include director/writer/editor Steven C. Miller, director/screenwriter Darren Lynn Bousman and assistant director Larry Katz.

Giant Beavers of Southern Sri Lanka
Trey Parker’s student film from the University of Colorado, Boulder, “Giant Beavers of Southern Sri Lanka”

43. University of Colorado, Boulder
UC Boulder’s Cinema Studies & Moving Image Arts BA and BFA programs are all about immersive filmmaking. Students are required to learn screenwriting, producing, directing, editing, and sound mixing. Boulder loves analog filmmaking: Along with a state-of-the-art digital cinema experience (including the RED camera, green screens and AVID), students can work in forms that include Super 8, 16mm, 35mm, hand-drawn and stop-motion animation. Alumni include “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, director Derek Cianfrance (“I Know This Much is True,” “The Place Beyond the Pines”), producer Alexis Martin Woodall (“Glee,” “American Horror Story”) and film editor Nick Houy (“Little Women,” “Lady Bird”).

44. Colorado Film School
CFS is, said director Brian Steward, “dollar for dollar, the best bargain in film schools — and the best film school for 800 miles in any direction.” State residents can get a two-year certificate in film for $9,500. (It’s $31,500 for outsiders.) The acting/directing faculty boasts Galina Boulgakova, a graduate of the Moscow Art Theater School, where the Stanislavski System originated. Skype and Zoom keep students in touch with Steward’s industry contacts and others, like “Dark Knight” executive producer Michael Uslan and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” director of photography Rick Page.


45. Biola
You wouldn’t think the executive who made AMC vital by programming “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead” would quit to become the dean of a Christian school’s new School of Cinema and Media Arts, but that’s what Tom Halleen just did. You might think Christian film is a negligible market, but it actually brings in more than $5 billion a year. And you might think that Biola is puny, but it’s got dozens of faculty, and Halleen oversees a $76 million building project for a 50,000-plus-square-foot soundstage, theater, classroom and office complex. Internships are required, and done at Bad Robot, Netflix, Amazon, the Television Academy and the DGA.

Arizona State University
Arizona State University

46. Arizona State University
ASU’s Herberger Institute’s film program is pretty big, with over 1,000 students and many heavy-hitting, Oscar-bedecked visiting speakers, but wait until its new $73.5 million, 118,000-square-foot digital innovation hub opens (perhaps in 2022), with theaters, movie-production studios and soundstages. ASU Herberger is also helping turn L.A.’s old Herald Examiner Building into a new 80,000-square-foot satellite campus. ASU’s Film Spark program has connected ASU students with 10 Oscar winners and nominees, three studio chiefs, DGA and AMPAS presidents and alums like Lionsgate vice chair Michael Burns. USC-trained former USC and LMU film prof Adam Collis said, “While ASU is not at the USC/LMU level, something very special is happening in Tempe.”

47. Pepperdine
Perched in heavenly hills over Malibu, Pepperdine’s students are 53% Christian and 88% say diversity is a Pepperdine core value. So whether you’re a faith-fueled filmmaker or not, you won’t get thrown to the lions — unless you’re a grad who lands a job in Hollywood, as many do. It’s less than 30 miles away, so teachers and visitors have included Robert Altman, Morgan Freeman, Dick Van Dyke, Garry Marshall, Amy Ephron, Lester Holt, Randall Wallace and WGA West’s Chuck Slocum. Alumni: “The Walking Dead” producer Denise Huth and action director D.J. Caruso.

48. Mount St. Mary’s University
Students get small class sizes and access to a production studio in the heart of Hollywood. The university’s production workshop experience places students in a writers’ room environment to create episodic content, which is then filmed on historic locations and studio backlots for an immersive professional experience. Programs include undergraduate degrees in film, journalism, professional photography, and B.S. degrees in film, media and social justice. In addition to the M.F.A. in film, television and photography, MSMU’s graduate offerings expanded this year to include their new M.F.A./M.B.A. combined degree in producing for film and television.

Willem Dafoe
University of Michigan alum Willem Dafoe

49. University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
Milwaukee’s $1.5 billion film industry employs more people than its famous breweries, and film job growth is twice as fast as the overall employment rate. UWM’s Peck School of the Arts’ Department of Film, Video, Animation and New Genres is at the center of the scene, tied to the Milwaukee Film Festival, Wisconsin Film Festival, Milwaukee Art Museum and UWM Union Cinema, one of 23 theaters nationally recognized by the Sundance Film Institute Art House Project. Noted for a tradition that blends the practical and the wildly experimental, UMW produced Willem Dafoe and “The Lord of the Rings”‘ Oscar-winning VFX man Jim Rygiel.

50. John Hopkins University/MICA
Johns Hopkins University partners with Maryland Institute College of Art for a film program centered at the $10 million, 25,000-square-foot Hopkins- MICA Film Center. At Hopkins’ famous Peabody Institute, Thomas “She Blinded Me With Science” Dolby runs a Music for New Media program to train students to make innovative sounds for film, television, video games and virtual reality.

Read more from TheWrap’s 2020 college issue here.

College Wrap magazine


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