Film Education: Top American Film Schools in 2021–Ranked

Top U.S. Film Schools–Ranked

COVID sidelined much of the 2020-21 academic year, but these premier programs are ready for return to normal.

America’s top film programs sought to prepare the next generation of filmmakers for an industry that looks vastly different from the one that existed 18 months ago.

The majority of these programs are now readying for in-person instruction, and students will be greeted with new soundstage for University of Texas at Austin and Columbia Chicago’s multicamera broadcast setup.

All of top film programs have an eye on the future, focusing on adding technologies (like Chapman University’s new LED wall for virtual production) and building inclusive educational environments (USC’s Black Student Welcome Experience).

As diversity and accessibility become integral of Hollywood’s vocabulary, this year’s list sees two schools making first-time appearances — Howard University, which boasts the only MFA in film at an HBCU, and Brooklyn College, which established its film program only in 2015, with most of the student body coming directly from the surrounding neighborhood. Still, the aim is to prepare its students for the ever-changing entertainment industry.


1. New York University


NYU was a strong presence in the 2021 awards season. Grad school alum Chloé Zhao made history as the first woman of color to win the best Director Oscar for Nomadland.

Zhao’s NYU classmate Shaka King was a part of the first all-Black producing team to be nominated for best picture for Judas and the Black Messiah.

At the Student Academy Awards, NYU students held two of the three narrative competition spots. In the past year, alum Cary Joji Fukunaga established a grant to fund grad student thesis films, which will be awarded to BIPOC projects and talent.  The Black Family Film Foundation donated $2.25 million for production grants for graduate film students.

While the 2020 school year saw 110 grad student productions and 5,000 individual undergraduate projects under COVID-19 safety officers, in-person classes will resume in the fall.

Returning students will be greeted by new chair of the grad film program, Julia Solomonoff, while Spike Lee returns as artistic director of the graduate program.



Dee Rees, Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik, Ang Lee, Sam Esmail

2. American Film Institute


At the conservatory, attended by 327 grad students in 2021, 12-to 14-hour days for six days a week is a common schedule during the first year.

Brad Ingelsby, an Emmy nominee for writing Mare of Easttown, says beyond writing three short films his first year, he also was required to be on set, not just for his own project but others: “Collaboration is one of the biggest lessons I learned at AFI.”

Alum Sian Heder’s feature CODA earned Sundance’s grand jury prize and a $25 million bid from Apple.

This past year, AFI conducted Zoom Master Seminars led by Spielberg, Spike Lee and David Fincher, and Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, 2021’s Dune) joined the faculty.

The newly established Lawrence Herbert Alumni Center assists students in gaining an industry foothold, while scholarship funding was at an all-time high, with recent $5 million contribution from the estate of Jerry Perenchio in support of diverse students.



Patty Jenkins, Melina Matsoukas, David Lynch

3. USC School of Cinematic Arts


Despite challenges presented by the pandemic, USC’s First Jobs Program has assisted more than 300 recent alumni with securing entry-level jobs.

USC captured a leading four prizes at the Student Academy Awards, while producer Gail Katz (Air Force One) was appointed chair of film and television, and producer Ed Saxon was named chair of the Peter Stark Producing Program.

SCA’s renowned game-design program recently announced the Gerald A. Lawson Endowment Fund, which is meant to support Black and Indigenous students interested in gaming. The Black Student Welcome Experience, a new program aimed at onboarding Black students in a way that provides community, was launched with a two-day event that had introductions from Black faculty and staff and a Q&A with SCA alumni and Insecure showrunner Prentice Penny.


ALUMNI Judd Apatow, Jon M. Chu, America Ferrera

4. Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts


Diversity is a priority at Dodge, where 25 professors of color were hired in the past year and mentorship program for underrepresented high schoolers kicks off in 2022.

The school invested in a full-time COVID officer and spent $750,000 on COVID-19 protections, which will continue for the next school year. This fall marks the opening of a career office, led by Joe Rosenberg, to form a pipeline into an industry where relationships are crucial.

“My closest collaborators are still the handful of peeps that I made my first film projects with more than 10 years ago,” says Blindspotting director Carlos López Estrada. “It’s been invaluable to be surrounded by this community of like-minded artists.”

TUITION $58,250 UNDERGRAD; $48,336-$58,250 GRAD


Duffer brothers, Justin Simien, Everything Sucks! creator Ben York Jones

5. Columbia University


One of the most expensive film programs produces talent that works across the commercial (James Mangold and Simon Kinberg are alums) and fine arts space. While its graduate programs focus on practical filmmaking, undergraduate film studies majors, who focus on academic theory, often work on graduate student film sets to gain on-set experience.

Columbia’s screenwriting classes, says Davíd Már Stefánsson, a writer on Netflix series Katla, have “very much in common with how an actual writers room is conducted. When I showed up for work for my first professional writers room, I immediately felt right at home.”



Disney Animation chief Jennifer Lee, Kathryn Bigelow

6. Emerson College Visual Media Arts Program


Boston-based Emerson includes its wide-reaching satellite programs, such as its Hollywood facility on Sunset Boulevard that acts as the home base for summer internship programs.

International offerings include a three-year BFA program in film arts at the Paris College of Art, a summer Prague film program at the FAMU film school, and a restored medieval castle in the Dutch province of Limburg, which serves as Emerson’s European campus.

A visual and media arts directing studio will be unveiled during the 2020-21 academic year in the Boston campus’ Paramount Center, while an Emerging Media Lab recently was opened to support virtual and augmented reality curriculum.

Among its most recent alumni triumphs, Erik Messerschmidt earned the Oscar for his cinematography on Mank.


ALUMNI Richard LaGravenese, Fahrenheit 451 producer Sarah Green, A Dog’s Journey co-producer Holly Bario, Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes’ Randy Barbato

7. CalArts


Walt Disney established the school during the 1960s to help educate the next generation of animation talent and, more than a half-decade later, it remains among the top programs for future animators.

Disney’s Pixar Animation is headed by alum Pete Docter, who took home this year’s best-animated film Academy Award for Soul. Outside of character animation, the school also offers degrees in film production, acting, fine art and graphic design. Recently, alumni Chad Hamill established a scholarship for Indigenous artists, while Charles Gaines established a fellowship that will provide scholarship support for Black students in the MFA Art program.


ALUMNI Andrew Stanton, Tim Burton, Brad Bird

8. Loyola Marymount University


A leadership upheaval occurred in the spring when dean Peggy Rajski was ousted after less than 3 years in the position, and was replaced by interim dean Brian Keith Alexander.

LMU brought in a faculty hire, producer Rosanne Korenberg, to lead the new collaboration between the school of film and television and LMU’s college of business administration. Recent partnerships with Sundance and SXSW — which will see the school provide 85-plus free passes to online programming — along with the completion of a newly minted Student Success Center at its Howard B. Fitzpatrick Pavilion, aim to increase student networking opportunities.

PA boot camps with Ryan Murphy’s Half Initiative banner and the Ghetto Film School are meant to ready students for entry-level production jobs.

TUITION $52,577 UNDERGRAD; $20,775-$33,240 GRAD

ALUMNI Francis Lawrence; Dear White People producer Effie Brown; Captain Marvel producer Patricia Whitcher; Ratched co-creator Evan Romansky



Long a respected program, UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television is undergoing reforms after extensive review by the school’s senate that found “chronic operational and procedural problems.” The school was hit by layoffs and budgets cuts in 2020 after the resignation of dean Teri Schwartz, who was replaced by Brian Kite.

Still, the report recognized “outstanding recent faculty hires” and “exceptionally diverse, engaged and committed student body.” Oscar nominees (Mank producer Eric Roth) and Emmy hopefuls (Pose writer Steven Canals) are among the alumni of the school, which boasts network that includes some of the industry’s biggest box office filmmakers, including F9 director Justin Lin.

To aid BIPOC and housing-insecure students, the school has launched several scholarships, including the MACEF Filmmaking Scholarship and Diane Frolov Opportunity Fund.



Gina Prince-Bythewood, Frank Marshall, Dustin Lance Black

10. University of Texas at Austin


UT’s new curriculum includes a writers-room class for MFA students that worked with alumna Jennifer Howell of DreamWorks Animation, and a development and distribution course taught by former Paramount executive Kyle Davies.

The former PBS Austin City Limits soundstage was acquired by the school, which opened a new Center for Entertainment and Media Industries, offering students access to internships via corporate partners. Shondaland’s head of comedy and drama Alison Eakle credits her Introduction to TV Writing class with not only influencing her graduate experience but also her “entire career trajectory.”


ALUMNI Wes Anderson, Renée Zellweger, Mark and Jay Duplass

11. University of North Carolina School of Arts


“Smaller and scrappier” is how Emmy-nominated Mare of Easttown director and alum Craig Zobel describes his production-oriented alma mater, adding that it truly “aligned with an indie film spirit.”

In 2021, the school named independent filmmaker Deborah LaVine the new dean of the School of Filmmaking. For the second straight year, the school will boast an incoming class of 50 percent women. UNCSA covers all costs of student films, which in the past school year included 200 student-produced films that followed industry COVID-19 protocols, including tests and officers.

TUITION $6,497-$23,731 UNDERGRAD; $9,196-$23,899 GRAD

ALUMNI Brett Haley, Jeff Nichols

12. Columbia College Chicago


Faculty and facilities are what make this Chicago school stand out. The media production center is set to be upgraded for the first time since the facility opened, adding a master control room that will allow for multicamera broadcast production. And while students can earn outside professional experience in Chicago’s busy production scene, professors also continue their extracurricular work, as Ted Hardin did with his recently released PBS doc Flannery.

More than 10 Columbia College alums were recognized at the 2021 NAACP Image Awards, with Diane Weyermann and Keith Walker part of the winning team behind top doc John Lewis: Good  Trouble. 

TUITION $21,610 

ALUMNI Lena Waithe, The Hate U Give producer George Tillman Jr., Chicago P.D. director Carl  Seaton 

13. Wesleyan University


In keeping with this institution’s liberal arts, its film curriculum is focused on formal analysis and theory. Its newly expanded Center for Film Studies houses two state-of-the-art cinemas and the student-run Wesleyan Film Series. Its barrier-raising high cost of tuition is counterbalanced by such measures as the Wesleyan Film Fund for underrepresented students, which raised $120,000 from alumni donations and resulted in six CFILM career transition grants to graduating majors and minors and also introduced CFILM filmmaking grants for first-generation and BIPOC film majors.

What it doesn’t provide in production experience, it makes up for in strong industry connections, with a network that includes 2006 grad and Nomadland producer Dan Janvey.

TUITION $61,449 undergrad

ALUMNI Akiva Goldsman, Kenneth  Lonergan, D.B. Weiss

14. Boston University


Situated inside the university’s school of communications, the program is a solid choice for aspiring filmmakers. The school offers a semester in L.A. as well as robust summer internships in the city with housing provided at the Park LaBrea Apartments.

Students also have access to the Kasker film and video resource center, which houses rare 16mm prints, as well as complimentary screenings at the nearby Harvard Film Archive and the Museum of Fine Arts.

TUITION $58,560 undergrad


Safdie brothers, Jim  Gianopulos