The 11 Best Film Schools in the U.S.

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If you're interested in being part of the film industry, about 300 four-year colleges and universities in the United States offer degrees in fields specifically focused on film, video, and cinematography. Different schools will have different strengths, so the best choice for a budding documentary maker is likely to be quite different than the strongest schools for directing or animation.

The schools below all have broad strengths in the cinematic arts, and they have highly successful alumni and a stellar faculty. The facilities have kept up with the rapid technological advances in the industry, and the schools have the professional connections to help their students succeed after graduation. Not suprisingly many of the top schools are located in or near Los Angeles and New York City, two of the nation's most active centers for film and television.

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American Film Institute

20th Annual AFI Awards - Red Carpet
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AFI, the American Film Institute Conservatory, typically ranks at or near the top of the nation's film schools. Located in Los Angeles just above Hollywood, the school has MFA programs in cinematography, directing, editing, producing, production design, and screenwriting. During the two-year degree program, students work in teams to write, produce, design, direct, film, and edit numerous films. The application process is highly competitive and requires a significant portfolio of creative work. The lively campus is home to the AFI Awards, AFI Fest, and other celebrations of the arts. Facilities aren't limited to the West Coast and include the 32,000 square foot Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver, Spring, Maryland.

AFI is working to address the film industry's male-dominated culture, and full-tuition scholarships are available for some aspiring female cinematographers, and successful alumni include Patty Jenkins (director of Wonder Woman) and Rachel Morrison (Academy Award nominated cinematographer). Other notable alumni include David Lynch (actor, writer, filmmaker), Julie Dash (film director, producer, writer), Sam Esmail (film and television producer, screenwriter, director), and Mimi Leder (film and television producer and director).

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California Institute of the Arts

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The California Institute of the Arts, more commonly known as CalArts, was build by Walt Disney and has a long history of excelling in animation. Alumni include Brenda Chapman (co-director of Pixar's Brave), Adrian Molina (Oscar for co-directing Pixar's Coco), and the well-known writer, director, producer, and artist Tim Burton. The campus is home to the impressive REDCAT, Roy and Edna Disney CalArts Theater at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

CalArts offers both bachelor's and master's degree programs through its six schools: Art, Critical Studies, Dance, Film/Video, Music, and Theater. With over 70 degree programs, students have options that include scene design, technical direction, and character animation. Film and Video is the most popular undergraduate major.

The school is located in Valencia, California, and is home to roughly 1,000 undergraduates and 500 graduate students. With a 7 to 1 student/faculty ratio, students get to work closely with their professors. Admission is selective with about 25% of applicants getting in each year.

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Chapman University

Smith Hall at Chapman University
Smith Hall at Chapman University. Tracie Hall / Flickr

Located southeast of Los Angeles in Orange, California, Chapman is a mid-sized comprehensive university made up of 11 schools and colleges. The Dodge College of Film and Media Arts consistently does well in the national rankings for both its undergraduate and graduate programs. Undergrads can choose from nine BFA programs: Broadcast Journalism and Documentary, Creative Producing, Animation & Visual Effects, Film Production, Film Studies, Public Relations and Advertising, Screenwriting, Screen Acting, and Television Writing and Production. Film Production is the second most popular major at the university, topped only by Business.

The school has over 125,000 square-feet of spread across three buildings. Facilities include two sound stages, dozens of editing suites, four mixing studies, two audition rooms, a 500-seat theater, and various screening rooms, computer labs, shop spaces, and art studios. The Marion Knott Studios building is designed like a working production studio, so students feel at home when they transition to careers in the cinematic arts.

Chapman's film and media programs have many impressive success stories: Matt and Ross Duffer, the creators of Stranger Things, graduated from Chapman, as did Justin Simien (creator of Dear White People) and Olatunde Osunsanmi (director of The Fourth Kind).

Admission to Chapman is selective, but not prohibitively so. About half of applicants are admitted, and the school moved to test-optional admissions in the spring of 2021. Film and Media Arts students will also need to submit a creative supplement as part of the application process.

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Columbia University

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Columbia University, one of the prestigious Ivy League Schools, has broad strengths and consistently ranks among the nation's top universities. The university's School of the Arts is no exception and frequently places among the nation's top ten places to study film. The school awards MFA degrees in Film, Theatre, Visual Arts, and Writing as well as an MA degree in Film and Media Studies and an interdisciplinary degree in Sound Art. Students looking for an urban college experience will appreciate Columbia's location in the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

While the School of the Arts is focused on graduate education, undergraduates can earn a degree in Film and Media Studies through Columbia College while taking classes and using the facilities at the School of the Arts. The facilities got a major upgrade recently when the Lenfest Center for the Arts opened on the Manhattanville campus in 2017.

Like all schools on this list, Columbia has many impressive alumni in the film industry including Jennifer Lee who wrote and directed Frozen and Frozen II. In 2021 alone, four films created by Columbia students and faculty members premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

If you hope to study film at Columbia, you'd better be a good student. The university has a mere 5% acceptance rate, and you're going to need impressive grades, standardized test scores, and extracurricular involvement.

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Emerson College

Emerson College
Emerson College. John Phelan / Wikimedia Commons

Emerson College has an enviable location in Boston right on the edge of the Boston Commons. The city's historic sites are just a short walk away, and Boston is a popular place to be a college student: MIT, Harvard, Boston University, Northeastern, and numerous other schools are nearby.

Unlike several of the schools on this list, Emerson has much more of an undergraduate than graduate focus. Emerson has a highly regarded BFA program in Comedic Arts, and it is also well known for its programs in costume and set design. Bachelor degree programs include Acting, Media Studios, Stage & Screen Design/Technology, Stage & Production Management, Media Arts Production, Theatre Design/Technology, and Film Art. Nearly half of all graduating students major in a field connected to film and cinematography.

Campus facilities include the 550-seat Paramount Theatre and a wide range of screening rooms, rehearsal studios, theaters, design studios, and control rooms. Notable alumni include comedian Jay Leno, TV producer Vin Di Bona, commedian Steven Wright, and actor/creator Denis Leary.

Emerson has test-optional admissions and admits about a third of all applicants. Many programs require a creative sample as part of the application.

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Loyola Marymount University

Hannon Library at Loyola Marymount. Photo Credit: Marisa Benjamin

Located in in Los Angeles, Loyola Marymount University ranks as one of the nation's top Catholic universities, and its film programs are among the best in the country. The LMU School of Film and Television offers undergraduate programs in Animation, Film and Television Production, Media Studies, Recording Arts, and Screenwriting. At the graduate level, students can earn an MFA in Film and TV Production, Writing for the Screen, and Writing and Producing for TV.

The School of Film and Television leverages its LA location, and over 70% of undergraduates participate in an industry internship. The school takes pride in its curriculum, and students gain lots of hands-on, collaborative, and project-based experience. Notable alumni include Francis Lawrence (director of three Hunger Games films), Barbara Broccoli (producer of numerous James Bond films), and David Mirkin (executive producer for The Simpsons).

LMU admits about 45% of applicants, and students tend to have high school grades and standardized test scores that are considerably above average. Applicants to the Film and Television Production program need to submit a portfolio as part of the application.

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New York University

New York University
New York University.

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Located in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, NYU's location is ideal for students interested in the arts. Along with impressive campus facilities, the Village is home to a huge variety of theaters and performance venues. NYU's Tisch School of the Arts consistently ranks among the top five schools in the country for film studies. The alumni roster has no shortage of well-known names including Billy Crystal, Vince Gilligan, and Martin Scorsese as well as a long list of successful directors, producers, and creators. Spike Lee received his MFA from Tisch where he is now a tenured professor.

The undergraduate program in Film and Television graduates hundreds of students each year, and the school's emphasis on "learning by doing" is clearly more than a slogan: students, staff and faculty make more than 5,000 films a year.

Admission to NYU is highly selective with an acceptance rate in the teens, so you're going to need a strong academic record and impressive creative portfolio to be admitted.

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University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
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UCLA's Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media consistently ranks among the very best in the country. At the undergraduate level, students work towards a BA in Film and Television. Required coursework covers three broad areas: cinema and media studies, production, and film and television craft. At the graduate level, UCLA offers master's degrees in Animation, Cinema and Media Studies, Cinematography, Producing, Directing, and Screenwriting. The university also has a PhD program in Cinema and Media Studies.

UCLA's proximity to Hollywood allows for many rewarding partnerships with the university, and the campus is home to the UCLA Film & Television Archive, the world's largest collection of of its kind found at a university.

UCLA's list of notable film alumni is lengthy. Highlights include David Ward (writer for Sleepless in Seattle and The Sting), Pietro Scalia (editor for Black Hawk Down, Gladiator, and Good Will Hunting), Valerie Faris (director for Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks), Gina Prince Bythewood (filmmaker for Beyond the Lights and The Secret Lives of Bees), and Marielle Heller (director for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and The Diary of a Teenage Girl).

In recent years, UCLA has been the most selective of the University of California campuses, with only one out of every nine applicants receiving an acceptance letter. You're going to need excellent grades, impressive extracurricular activities, and strong personal insight essays to be admitted.

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University of Southern California

USC Doheny Memorial Library
USC Doheny Memorial Library. Photo Credit: Marisa Benjamin

The University of Southern California frequently ranks among the top one or two film schools in the country. Located in Los Angeles, its proximity to Hollywood is a huge benefit that provides opportunities for students and attracts top talent to the campus.

The USC School of Cinematic Arts is huge with about 1,000 undergraduates and 700 graduate students. The school is made up of numerous divisions and programs that cover all aspects of the film industry: Animation & Digital Arts, Cinema & Media Studies, Interactive Media & Games, Media Arts & Practice, Producing, Writing for Screen & Television, and Business of Cinematic Arts. USC's film facilities would make some movies studios jealous, and students have access to a wide range of state-of-the-art television, film, and interactive media equipment. Students will also find no shortage of editing bays, sound stages, and theaters.

Along with stellar facilities and faculty, USC has produced no shortage of alumni who have been highly successful in the film industry. Alumni include producer, actor, director, and screenwriter John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood, 2 Fast 2 Furious, Baby Boy, Poetic Justice); director, screenwriter, and producer, Robert Zemeckis (Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump); producer and writer Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Edge of Tomorrow); and writer and producer Shonda Rhimes (Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice, How to Get Away with Murder); and hundreds of others.

Getting into the School of Cinematic Arts will be a challenge. The acceptance rate is around 11%, and successful applicants will need excellent grades, standardized test scores, and extracurricular involvement as well as a stellar portfolio of creative work.

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University of Texas at Austin

University of Texas at Austin
University of Texas at Austin.

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The University of Texas Moody College of Communication's program in Radio-Television-Film (RTF) has an enrollment of about 1,000 undergraduates and 160 graduate students. Texas's public universities have lower tuition than most states, so this top-rated program represents an excellent value. Among UT's alumni are many familiar names including Matthew McConaughey, Wes Anderson, and Renée Zellweger.

The RTF program focuses on both theory and practice to create graduates prepared for a wide range of careers both in and out of the film industry. Campus facilities include numerous video editing suites and film/television production studios. UT also encourages students to conduct internships to gain further hands-on experience.

Even though the University of Texas at Austin is home to over 50,000 students, admission is competitive. Only about a third of applicants are admitted. You'll need high school grades and SAT/ACT scores that are significantly above average to be competitive.

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Wesleyan University

Wesleyan University Library
Wesleyan University Library. Photo Credit: Allen Grove

Located in Middleton, Connecticut, Wesleyan University delivers a powerful film studies education in the liberal arts environment of a school with just 3,200 students. Founded by Jeanine Basinger, Wesleyan's College of Film and the Moving Image (CFILM) is home to a new 16,000 square-foot Center for Film Studies with its own theater and soundstage.

All Film Studies students take two introductory courses: History of Global Cinema and Film, and The Language of Hollywood: Styles, Storytelling, and Technology. They also take a production course, Sight and Sound Workshop. The rest of the major is chosen from elective courses, so student have a lot of flexibility to pursue their interests. Most students choose to do a senior honors thesis that can take the form of a historical study, screenplay, 16mm film, digital video, or virtual filmmaking project. Many film students participate in the Wesleyan Film Series, an organization that screens well over 100 films each academic year.

Wesleyan has impressive alumni including Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Dollhouse), Matthew Weiner (Mad Men, The Sopranos), Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton, Moana, His Dark Materials), Akiva Goldsman (Batman Forever, A Beautiful Mind), and Paul Weitz (American Pie, Mozart in the Jungle).

The school is one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country, and admission is highly selective with a 16% acceptance rate.

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Grove, Allen. "The 11 Best Film Schools in the U.S." ThoughtCo, Feb. 9, 2021, Grove, Allen. (2021, February 9). The 11 Best Film Schools in the U.S. Retrieved from Grove, Allen. "The 11 Best Film Schools in the U.S." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).