Having gone to film school three times and being a member of a family where education was held in the highest esteem, obviously I am a fan of becoming film educated. However, I do stress becoming “educated”. School is not the only way to become educated, and in certain situations, there is no official school to learn critical information. Never the less, school is a time tested successful method for laying down a formidable foundation.
The Big Five
The Big Five films schools are The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), The University of Southern California (USC) and The American Film Institute (AFI) on the West Coast in Los Angeles, and New York University (NYU) and Columbia University on the East Coast in New York.
UCLA is best known for their writers who dominate the summer movie screenwriting credits, USC is better know for their powerhouse directors, AFI often has incredible cinematographers, NYU is heralded for its East Coast filmmaker style, and Columbia is an all around great school with exceptional film theory for all programs. Any school you go to at the Big 5 will be an incredible experience for each program. You will also have big name professionals and heads of big companies teach courses or speak as guests because of the school’s notoriety. You can’t lose.
The downside to USC is that they run it like a studio. Only 5 people get to direct a thesis project if you’re a graduate directing student. Every directing student comes in to be one of those 5 and then 20 or 30 people in the end don’t get a thesis project, but get to help crew on the 5 people who did get to make one’s film. The upside to USC, is again, that they run it like a studio. USC is often unparalleled in its networking capacity and markets its students aggressively to the industry.
UCLA is most known for its screenwriters. USC might be capable of out-networking UCLA, but its writers can’t out-write UCLA writers. An average UCLA Graduate Screenwriting student will leave with 8 feature length screenplays. UCLA screenwriters write a feature-length script in a 10-week quarter, which most resembles a real life 8-week writing assignment. USC screenwriters will write 1 feature-length screenplay over a period of 1 year. You do the math.
The Peter Stark Producing Program at USC is great for producing movie executives, but the UCLA Producing Program is great for teaching producers everything there is to know to go out there and just start doing it.
Similar to USC’s “only 5 will direct a thesis project”, AFI is even more hardcore. Not only are there are a limited number of thesis projects, not every filmmaker is always invited to come back to school for a second year. It’s harder to get into any of these film schools than it is to get into Harvard Law School, simply because Harvard takes a higher percentage of its applicants than the big film schools do, so for me AFI and USC really wasn’t worth getting cut or snubbed over after you had to already defeat the odds of winning the lottery to even get accepted. Having to win the lottery a second time just wasn’t desirable.
Other Film Schools
Another school worth mentioning is Florida State University, which accepts an equal amount of writers, directors, cinematographers and editors so they can form teams for thesis projects. This seems to make the most since. Temple University in Philadelphia is great, and a must-apply for experimental filmmakers.
But in general, any film program is a great film program as long as you are learning.