Before we get to the excellent institutions on our 2021 list of the Best Film Schools in the U.S. and Canada, a question:
At a time when pro-level cameras are built into our cell phones, YouTube tutorials teach just about any subject you can imagine, and auteurs like Aaron Sorkin share their wisdom through MasterClass courses, is film school still a necessity for anyone who wants to learn the craft of cinema? It’s impossible to generalize. But when you go to film school, you aren’t just paying for an education. Film schools offer state-of-the-art equipment, and facilities and training to use it all effectively. They also introduce you to essential history and theory that will shape your perspective and creative work. You’ll meet teachers and mentors whose guidance will feel priceless.
But the most important resource might be your fellow students. Writers, directors and producers need crews to bring their vision to life. And for executives, financiers, agents and managers, networking is essential. It all begins in film school. Wherever you study, remember to build bridges, not burn them. MovieMaker continues its tradition of highlighting the best film schools in the United States and Canada, highlighting not just the universities themselves, but particular programs with curriculums we find compelling and useful, based on specific paths students can pursue. Those disciplines include writing, producing, directing, cinematography, overall production, business and more scholarly studies of cinema and mass media, as well. We hope you enjoy our writeup of the best film schools, and wish you the best of luck being accepted into the film school of your dreams.
And don’t miss our companion film school alumni advice feature which includes wisdom from key collaborators on Zola, In the Heights and Mare of Easttown.
U.S. West and Northwest
AFI Conservatory (Los Angeles, CA) – Outstanding directing training
This two-year MFA directing program is among the most prestigious available in North America. Ari Aster (Hereditary), Kirby Dick (Allen v. Farrow), Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman) and Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) are among the former Directing Fellows who went on to craft compelling films that made them household names for cinephiles. “I’m so grateful for my years at AFI,” Jenkins says. “I deeply believe they helped me find my voice and defining principles of story and craft that inform me to this day.” The American Film Institute Conservatory guarantees Fellows will refine their skill by directing at least five films in two years, while learning from inspiring guest lectures and enlightening seminars from masters of the craft like Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch. The Los Angeles-based film school also offers graduate programs for screenwriting, editing, producing, production design and cinematography, creating a collaborative environment in which Fellows from all disciplines join forces on projects, establishing relationships that will carry on long after graduation. Brad Ingelsby, who created the HBO drama Mare of Easttown, describes his experience at AFI as “incredible”: “I learned how to be a writer at AFI,” he tells MovieMaker. “And then of course, you get the knowledge in your backpack, and then you’ve got to go off and make yourself into your own writer, but I got all that knowledge. And by the time I graduated from AFI, I felt like I was completely equipped to actually be a writer, at long last.”
ArtCenter Pasadena (Pasadena, CA) – Outstanding directing training
California Institute of the Arts (Santa Clarita, California) – Outstanding directing training
California State University, Northridge (Los Angeles) – Outstanding film production training
Chapman University (Orange, California) – Outstanding cinematography training
Hussian College (Los Angeles) – Outstanding film and digital content production training
This film school is young, so its reputation is still growing, but it should be on the radar of anyone seeking a program that emphasizes practical production experience, through working on a studio lot in the heart of the industry, along with essential film theory courses. “We are the first film school created in partnership with a studio and situated inside a major Hollywood lot, Los Angeles Center Studios,” Elric Kane, chair of Film & Digital Content, tells MovieMaker. “This industry immersion allows students to learn by doing and being surrounded by the business. Our focus is to balance the art and commerce of filmmaking in the ever-changing entertainment landscape.” The school offers a four-year BFA that will prepare students to apply their skills in the real world. An intensive series of collaborative and mentored projects help students through the processes of screenwriting, directing, sound design, cinematography, producing, pre-production and post-production, while the location of the program makes it easy to mix and mingle with professionals.
Loyola Marymount University (Los Angeles) – Outstanding TV writing and production training
New York Film Academy (Los Angeles and New York City) – Outstanding cinematography training
With campuses in both hubs of the entertainment industry, NYFA is a fertile training ground for all disciplines of moviemaking. Bill Hader, Issa Rae, Paul Dano and Aubrey Plaza are among the Hollywood stars who have taken courses here. The Los Angeles campus offers an accelerated, two-year MFA in cinematography, studying under experienced faculty, headed by chair Anthony Richmond, a BAFTA award-winning director of photography, whose eclectic list of 93 credits includes The Sandlot, Legally Blonde and Candyman. Over the course of five semesters, students crew in all positions on their peers’ films, while working with film and digital cameras to photograph their own thesis films in various forms — including music video, documentary and narrative. The curriculum blends academic theory with practical skills to equip students with the on-set knowledge they need to actually land a job in the competitive field of cinematography. Practice makes perfect, so MFA students can expect to complete 10 of their own projects as director of photography, in addition to working on numerous other productions in other capacities on set.
Portland State University (Portland, Oregon) – Outstanding film studies
This is a fantastic environment for aspiring filmmakers seeking a bachelor’s degree that can lead to an industry job in Portland or elsewhere, or lay the foundation for more education. The curriculum is heavy on theory, but offers students the chance to dive into their particular areas of interest, whether they want to pursue narrative or documentary film production, screenwriting, digital cinematography, animation, or editing. “Our major does not distinguish a production path from a film theory path,” Amy Borden, director of the PSU School of Film, tells MovieMaker. “We believe that makers need a significant grounding in film history, theory and aesthetics, including a broad engagement with genres, global voices and film forms to develop into knowledgeable, creative filmmakers.” With classes analyzing various genres and even influential filmmakers, such as the Coen Brothers and John Carpenter, as well as a plethora of courses on every aspect of production, this school will give undergrads a strong foundation.
San Francisco State University – Outstanding production training
University of California, Los Angeles – Outstanding producing training
University of Southern California (Los Angeles) – Outstanding producing training
Given its state-of-the-art facilities and proximity to the studios in Hollywood, as well as the esteemed faculty who spent decades working for those studios, and its strong legacy of producing graduates who go on to be a force within the industry, USC is consistently ranked as one of the best film schools in the world. Prepare to make your own impact through the Peter Stark Producing Program, an innovative, two-year, full-time MFA designed to prepare highly motivated students for careers as producers and executives of film, television and new media. The program is spearheaded by professor and chair Lawrence Turman, who has produced 40 films, including The Graduate and American History X. Graduates are successful not just because of the excellent education, but also because of the tight-knit comradery between the select group of students. There are no electives; all Stark students take the same classes at the same time in a mandated sequence. Screenwriting powerhouse John August (Big Fish, Corpse Bride, Aladdin) and writer-producer Melissa Rosenberg (Jessica Jones, Dexter) agreed during a 2019 Q&A in front of USC students that they both broke into the industry with the help of classmates. “I thought I wanted to write, but I didn’t know if I was good enough to do it. I chose Stark as a safer, business-y degree and it was the right choice,” August said. “The people were so smart and so driven and kept me on their toes, and I flourished.”
Continue for the U.S. Midwest and Southwest schools of our Best Film Schools in the U.S. and Canada 2021