1. American Film Institute
Among the most selective film schools in America, AFI's Center for Advanced Film and Television Studies in Los Angeles offers a two-year conservatory program where students specialize in fields including directing, producing and writing, often coming to the institute after working in the industry or having attended other schools. Its "fellows" are typically more mature (average age is 27) and benefit from speakers and teachers drawn from the highest levels of the industry, supported by the full weight of AFI itself. Comparing it to cross-town rivals UCLA and USC is a bit of apples-and-oranges, given its small size and emphasis on specialization, but AFI's glittering parade of alumni, from David Lynch to Darren Aronofsky, remains unrivaled when it comes to auteur filmmakers. Students are guaranteed the freedom to make a thesis film and are given access to SAG members for their casts and $13,500 in financing. If you know where you're going, AFI can get you there.
TUITION $38,416 for first year; $37,112 for second year (plus $8,033 for thesis)
DEGREES MFA, certificate of completion
NOTABLE ALUMNI Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life), David Lynch (Blue Velvet), Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan)
"I love AFI and would be nowhere without it." -- David Lynch
2. University of Southern California
The richest film school in the world (alum George Lucas contributed $175 million, and alum Robert Zemeckis has given a bundle, too), USC probably has more graduates working in the industry than any other school and has the greatest support from the industry itself, with 10,000-plus alums who routinely donate millions for state-of-the-art facilities -- and notable support from non-graduate Steven Spielberg. Its Peter Stark Producing Program, under The Graduate producer Larry Turman, remains the premier venue for aspiring producers and execs. Insiders were split when asked to choose between AFI and USC for the No. 1 spot, with AFI winning largely on the basis of its choice student body. But USC takes the candle when it comes to technical training. Says Dean Elizabeth M. Daley: "One of the hardest things to understand is the culture of filmmaking. You're not gonna get that out of a book. Come here and you'll understand." She's right, thanks to unrivaled facilities, an emphasis on film history and technique and its great ties with Hollywood -- a plus for some, but not for those more interested in indie films. The upside: It's a vast dream factory. The downside: It's a vast dream factory.
TUITION $42,000 (plus room and board)
DEGREES Critical studies, B.A., M.A., MFA and Ph.D. programs in everything from film and TV to animation and digital arts
NOTABLE ALUMNI George Lucas (Star Wars), Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind), Jon Landau (Avatar)
"USC is run in many ways like a studio. The challenges that were given to us had to do with the realities of the industry and financing, and I think those were important lessons to learn." -- Lee Unkrich, director, Toy Story 3
Check out a brief clip from USC's FotoKem Awards winner Efrain.
3. Beijing Film Academy
If one film school anywhere in the world has shaped a whole nation, it's the Beijing Film Academy, China's most elite school for film direction, production and writing. Each year, it accepts about 500 applicants -- primarily from China -- out of 100,000. The school is a source of new talent for film and TV production and closely linked with the nearby Beijing Film Studio. It's also the place where such directors as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige -- the ones who created arguably the most distinct new wave of filmmaking since America in the early 1970s -- cut their teeth. (At 27, Zhang had to get special permission to attend after the Cultural Revolution because he had passed the cut-off age.)
TUITION Program fees range from $1,240 to $1,550 for local students; international students pay $6,665 to $7,905 per year for film programs. Partial and full scholarships are available based on need and merit and are awarded on an individual basis.
DEGREES B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. programs in everything from performance and direction to cinematography and animation. All degree programs are conducted in Chinese, though international students may take some courses in English or study Chinese at the Film Academy.
NOTABLE ALUMNI Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers), Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine), Tian Zhuangzhuang (The Blue Kite)
4. New York University Tisch School of the Arts
To study film in New York is to plunge into the belly of a very different beast than Hollywood, but for gritty artists like Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone and Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, NYU has proved a direct route to the top. Where else can you sit in a class of 12 and hear alum James Franco teach you how to turn a poem into a movie? Graduates also vie for a $200,000 prize to complete a debut feature film -- a gift no other school offers. In addition to its New York campus, Tisch School of the Arts Asia, located in Singapore, offers MFA degrees in animation and digital arts, dramatic writing and film production. Summer programs include professional workshops and noncredit certificate courses.
DEGREES B.A., BFA, MFA, MPS, M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in moving-image archiving and preservation as well as performance studies or cinema studies
NOTABLE ALUMNI Todd Phillips (The Hangover), Joel Coen (No Country for Old Men), Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich)
"Getting accepted to Tisch meant one thing to me: hope. It validated all of my dreams and made the concept of becoming a filmmaker a tangible possibility. Teachers like Tom Drysdale and Haig Manoogian inspired me, infusing me with a lifelong passion for cinema history. I carry their artistic philosophy with me on every film: Never compromise, never stop asking questions and never stop being a student of film." -- Chris Columbus, writer-director, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
5. University of California Los Angeles
UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television has long suffered in comparison with its richer and more industry-connected rival USC, but its vibe is distinctly different, with a multicultural campus that ranks among the best in California. It has benefited from such prestigious graduates as Francis Ford Coppola and Alexander Payne; from teachers like producer Peter Guber; and from its connection with the respected UCLA Film & Television Archive, whose collection is "second only to the Library of Congress," according to Dean Teri Schwartz. The well-regarded Schwartz will likely determine UCLA's future standing: After serving for years at Loyola Marymount, the former producer (and Goldie Hawn's onetime producing partner) joined the university in 2009, replacing veteran Robert Rosen. Now insiders are waiting to see how things will change under her leadership. Look for her to stress "humanistic storytelling and global diversity" -- quite different from the commercial emphasis of many other film schools.
TUITION B.A.: $12,842 (California resident), $35,720 (non-resident); MFA: $22,208 (California resident), $34,453 (non-resident); M.A. or Ph.D.: $13,549 (California resident), $28,651 (non-resident)
DEGREES B.A., M.A., MFA and Ph.D.
NOTABLE ALUMNI Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather), Tim Robbins (Dead Man Walking), Alexander Payne (Sideways)
"The key is having a point of view -- which is very much the UCLA approach. You could say UCLA filmmakers try to bring an indie attitude even to studio pictures. We always try to find some kind of subjectivity." -- Justin Lin, director, Fast Five
6. California Institute of the Arts
CalArts is way beyond what founder Walt Disney could imagine. "It is a paradox, an experimental art school," says CalArts School of Film/Video Dean Steve Anker. "You usually have music, theater, dance conservatories and art schools, but you don't have them under the same roof." Anker's film/video school is most famous for training animation talents, but besides character-based and experimental animation, you can study dramatic narrative, documentary, experimental live action, multimedia and installation. CalArts-spawned geniuses like John Lasseter and Tim Burton can do more than draw -- they can draw on the artistic talents around them. Says Anker: "CalArts in general, and certainly the school of film and video, is this very large laboratory for the creative arts." "Large" is right: The classrooms occupy 11 acres' worth of square footage 30 miles north of Los Angeles.
DEGREES BFA, MFA in film, video and experimental animation; MFA in film directing; BFA in character animation
NOTABLE ALUMNI Tim Burton (Alice in Wonderland), Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo), John Lasseter (chief creative officer, Pixar)
"I have so many great memories of CalArts. Sitting in the dark, hunched over the old Oxberry camera, shooting my film. The giant papier-mache butt from someone's art installation in the main gallery. Playing Lazer Tag in the empty halls in the middle of the night. But what I remember most are all the great friends that I made, many of whom I work alongside today." -- Don Hall, co-director, Winnie the Pooh
7. The Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague
Located in the "city of 1,000 spires and 29 McDonald's," as expatriates like to say, FAMU is the fifth-oldest film school in the world and one of the most prestigious. Created in 1946 when Prague was behind the Iron Curtain, it helped develop such iconoclastic filmmakers as Milos Forman, Ivan Passer, Agnieszka Holland, Emir Kusturica and Jiri Menzel and served as a hub for student rebels during Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution. With classes in Czech and English, its reputation is still strong enough that it draws many foreigners to its nine departments (ranging from still photography to documentaries to screenwriting), something helped by partnerships with NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, American University and Yale, all of which offer study-abroad programs there.
DEGREES MFA in cinema and digital media
NOTABLE ALUMNI Milos Forman (Amadeus), Emir Kusturica (Black Cat, White Cat), Agnieszka Holland (The Killing)
"I believe deeply that in any film school, you can learn as much, or even more, from the fellow students as from the teachers. But in FAMU in the late 1960s and early '70s, when I was studying, some of the teachers were great. My main instructor Karel Kachyna was indeed one of the most skilled directors of his generation. Jan Matejovsky in the television directing department taught us how to be diplomatic with actors, crew and producers. I still use his very useful advice." -- Agnieszka Holland
8. Columbia University School of the Arts
You know when James Schamus is one of your professors, things can't be too bad. Schamus, the head of Focus Features (who recently completed a doctorate on Carl Theodor Dreyer), is just one of the feathers in this Ivy League university's cap. Another is Oscar winner Milos Forman, the school's longtime leader. Then there's a staff that includes Barbara De Fina (Goodfellas) and Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding). Names like these give Columbia intellectual credentials that dwarf its peers and have helped attract such alumni as Kathryn Bigelow, Lisa Cholodenko, James Mangold and Kimberly Peirce -- not necessarily Hollywood's most commercial filmmakers, but always among its most original. Will it remain that way under its new chair, Fine Line Features founder and indie exec Ira Deutchman? Deutchman insists on story and collaboration -- two Hollywood ideals -- yet stresses the importance of the artist. "You have to keep an eye on the business, but it's first and foremost about creating artists," he says.
TUITION MFA first and second years: $50,873 per year; M.A.: $44,264
DEGREES MFA in film; M.A. in film studies
NOTABLE ALUMNI Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right), Nicole Holofcener (Walking and Talking)
"My years in the film program taught me the craft of screenwriting as well as the business of making movies. In so many ways, Columbia was the perfect combination of arts: conservatory and trade school, a place where I could read Aristotle and Eisenstein on narrative theory and analyze budgets and box office like a science. The lessons learned at Columbia -- how to analyze and synthesize perspectives, how to treat your work as an ever-evolving document -- serve me every day." -- Simon Kinberg, screenwriter, X-Men: The Last Stand
9. Wesleyan University
OK, so everyone knows about the Hollywood infiltration of places like USC and UCLA. But they might be surprised to learn that Wesleyan's Film Studies program is giving those two a run for their money, with a tight-knit group of alumni that includes Michael Bay, Akiva Goldsman, Joss Whedon, Larry Mark and Rick Nicita. They and others were drawn to the Middletown, Conn.-based university not just because of the cozy feeling or its tradition in the liberal arts but largely because of the reputation of film department founder Jeanine Basinger, who makes each of her 80 film majors learn to write, direct and edit a movie by hand (yes, they learn digital, too) as well as study other subjects to enrich their films. Of course, if they want to know about movies, they can turn to Wesleyan's archive, which includes the papers of Frank Capra, Martin Scorsese, Federico Fellini and Clint Eastwood. "If you're studying On the Waterfront, you can look at Elia Kazan's notebook," Basinger says. "It's an amazing experience."
TUITION $55,736 (includes room and board)
DEGREES B.A. in film studies
NOTABLE ALUMNI Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl), Michael Bay (Transformers), Zak Penn (X-Men: The Last Stand)
10. The National Film and Television School
For decades, the then-National Film School wasn't just the best place to study filmmaking in the U.K. -- it was pretty much the only one. That's now changed, but the NFTS has retained the stature that went with it despite a Beaconsfield location (away from the hub of filmmaking in London) and, until recently, dirt-poor facilities. Now it boasts a new building; a bunch of new programs; an innovative leader in indie producer Nik Powell; teachers like Stephen Frears; and access to Britain's thriving movie and TV industry through development deals with Channel 4, the BBC and Aardman. That has provided avenues for such graduates as cinematographer Roger Deakins and directors Lynne Ramsey, Nick Broomfield and David Yates.
TUITION $14,300 for residents; $32,000 for overseas students
DEGREES M.A. in film and TV
NOTABLE ALUMNI David Yates (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts 1 and 2), Nick Park (Wallace & Gromit), Beeban Kidron (Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason)
"I would not be making films in Hollywood without it. The NFTS was absolutely vital." -- Michael Caton-Jones, director, Scandal
11. La Femis
Founded in 1986 by Cultural Minister Jack Lang, La Femis is France's most prestigious film school. So prestigious, in fact, that only three percent of students who take the entrance exam are accepted by the state-run academy whose grads typically go on to win prizes at film festivals across the globe.
TUITION $517 for French citizens; $15,334 for foreigners
DEGREES Undergraduate degrees in screenwriting, directing, producing, sound design, editing and film distribution
NOTABLE ALUMNI Francois Ozon (Swimming Pool), Noemie Lvovsky (Feelings), Celine Sciamma (Tomboy)
12. University of North Carolina School of the Arts
Don't come to Carolina unless you're serious about filmmaking. Academically rigorous, the UNC School of the Arts is a plunge into film in collaboration with drama, music, dance, design and production studies and a 65-piece orchestra. By the third year, you're shadowing the likes of director David Gordon Green. "Our graduates have made films that receive hundreds of millions of dollars and on the other side of the spectrum won the Grand Prix at Cannes this year," says Dean Jordan Kerner. Coming soon: a new animation and gaming building.
TUITION $4,716 for residents; $17,665 for non-residents
DEGREES BFA in animation, art direction, cinematography, directing, editing and sound, producing and screenwriting. MFA in film music composition.
NOTABLE ALUMNI David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express), Danny McBride (Eastbound & Down), Jody Hill (Observe and Report)
"I feel like UNCSA's film school provided me with an exceptionally practical filmmaking education. You definitely learned about theory. You watched lots of films, but more than anything else, you made movies. You were always pitching your own ideas or getting feedback. You were always on a set or in an editing suite. Always. So I've found the industry to be, in many ways, just a bigger version of the world I knew from school." -- Travis Beacham, screenwriter, Clash of the Titans