Best Film Schools 2021: Going to College in the Covid-19 Era - Careers in Film
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Since we last put out our recommendations for the best film schools, the world has changed quite a bit.

COVID-19 has impacted virtually every aspect of life for individuals across the globe, and emerging filmmakers are no exception. That being said, this pandemic does not have to inhibit anyone looking to advance their movie careers. The best film schools have seen to that.

To address the concerns of those applying to or attending one of these film schools, we’ve updated our information with current COVID-19 resources. Not only has each school provided a dedicated page on its website—linked for our readers’ convenience—to help prospective students navigate these unprecedented times, but also we have included several quotes provided by those running the schools on how they plan to both protect their students and provide the quality education expected from their institutions.

In alphabetical order, our list of the best film schools includes:

  • American Film Institute (AFI)
  • California Institute of the Arts
  • Chapman University
  • Columbia University
  • Emerson College
  • Loyola Marymount University
  • New York University (NYU)
  • University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
  • University of Southern California (USC)
  • Wesleyan University

The 10 Best Film Schools

American Film Institute (AFI)

Notable alumni include Darren Aronofsky, Susannah Grant, Amy Heckerling, Patty Jenkins, David Lynch, and Terrence Malick.

The American Film Institute is a highly regarded film school based out of Los Angeles and an option for those who have already completed an undergraduate degree. The school offers six different MFA programs in Screenwriting, Directing, Cinematography, Editing, Producing and Production Design. These programs are rigorous, as students collaborate with their peers over their two years at the school to produce between four and ten films, but they also get to leave with several projects under their belt and valuable real-world filmmaking experience.

As of fall 2020, AFI had committed to a hybrid learning program, which includes both online and modified in-person classes in accordance with “local and state regulations and health and safety guidelines.” In addition, for all student productions, AFI will be providing both a COVID Compliance Officer and a public health professional to help students adhere to the new safety guidelines for their productions.

Learn more about AFI’s COVID-19 response.

American Film Institute

California Institute of the Arts

Notable alumni include Brad Bird, Alison Brie, Tim Burton, Don Cheadle, Sofia Coppola, and Dustin Hoffman.

Located about 30 miles north of Los Angeles, the California Institute of the Arts, or CalArts, offers more than five-dozen different degree programs across the media, literary, performing, and visual arts. Among those most closely related to film, the school has both undergraduate and graduate options, including a BFA and MFA in Film and Video, a BFA in Character Animation, and an MFA in Film Directing.

Given CalArts’ close proximity to LA, students can take advantage through internships and networking to hit the ground running in the industry upon graduation.

CalArts had the entirety of its fall 2020 classes strictly online for both undergraduate and graduate students with only essential staff allowed on campus.

Learn more about CalArts’ COVID-19 response.

California Institute of the Arts

Chapman University

Notable alumni include Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer, Colin Hanks, Leslie Jones, Kellan Lutz, and Justin Simien.

Unlike AFI and CalArts, Chapman University’s areas of expertise extend beyond the arts. Located about 30 miles south of Los Angeles, Chapman is made up of ten different schools across a spectrum of fields, one of them being the reputable Dodge College of Film and Media Arts.

This highly regarded school offers multiple undergraduate and graduate options, such as a BFA in Film Production, BFA in Creative Producing, BFA in Animation and Visual Effects, BFA in Screenwriting, BFA in Television Writing and Production, BFA in Screen Acting, BA in Film Studies, MFA in Film Production, MFA in Film and TV Producing, MFA in Screenwriting, MFA in Television Writing and Producing, MFA in Production Design, MFA in Documentary Filmmaking, MA in Film Studies, as well as a combined JD/MFA in Film and TV Producing or MBA/MFA in Film and TV Producing.

Like CalArts, Chapman University began the fall 2020 school session with remote instruction at both its Orange and Rinker campuses. In addition, it will have only limited on-campus housing options that may be modified in accordance with state and county regulations.

Dean Stephen Galloway on Chapman University’s response to COVID-19:

“This has been an extraordinarily difficult time for everyone and I don’t envy students whose education has been disrupted so horribly. The good news is that Chapman has shifted rapidly into the digital age, investing $8 million in new learning technology alone. We’re also benefiting from Zoom to launch a series of masterclasses with the kind of high-profile guests—like Oscar-winning director William Friedkin (The Exorcist) and NBC News president Noah Oppenheim—who are suddenly available and willing to talk!”

Learn more about Chapman’s COVID-19 plan of action.

Chapman University

Columbia University

Notable alumni include Kathryn Bigelow, James Gunn, Jim Jarmusch, Kate McKinnon, Kimberly Peirce, and Julia Stiles.

On the other coast sits Columbia University in New York City. Established more than 250 years ago, Columbia is New York State’s oldest institution of higher learning, and like Chapman University, offers students many options in different fields of study. For those interested in film, Columbia’s School of the Arts has both undergraduate and several graduate programs.

Students can pursue a BA in Film and Media Studies, MA in Film and Media Studies, MFA in Screenwriting/Directing or MFA in Creative Producing. Moreover, like Los Angeles, New York City is a hub of entertainment industry activity where students can earn in-the-field experience as they finish their studies.

Columbia University kicked off its fall 2020 school session with a hybrid program to allow for both online and in-person learning. However, the school notes that all on-campus instruction will be given in strict accordance with all COVID-19 safety standards.

Dean Carol Becker on Columbia University’s response to COVID-19:

“Columbia University School of the Arts is very fortunate to live in a large university with amazing health professionals at the Medical School, Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, the School of Public Health and the School of Nursing, not to mention experts in epidemiology and global pandemics.

Everything we are doing to reopen, at whatever scale, is being extensively monitored and evaluated by professionals in these groups who have played an enormous leadership role in advising the entire university about safe protocols. This is an unprecedented time when we are all forced to change plans minute by minute, but at least we have the best advisement in this most unsettling situation.”

Learn more about Columbia’s COVID-19 plan of action.

Columbia University

Emerson College

Notable alumni include Vin Di Bona, Joely Fisher, Norman Lear, Stefani Robinson, Alex Tse, and Henry Winkler.

Though not located in either Los Angeles or New York City, Boston’s Emerson College has built an earned reputation as one of the best film schools in the nation. And like most of the film schools already mentioned, prospective students can enroll in its Visual & Media Arts department as either an undergraduate or graduate student.

Emerson offers multiple competitive programs, such as a BA or BFA in Film, BA in Production, BFA in Film Art, BFA in Stage & Screen Design/Technology, MFA in Writing for Film and Television, and MFA in Film and Media Art. The school also provides students with options to study for a semester at its LA campus or its international Global Pathways Program.

For the fall 2020 semester, Emerson implemented its One Emerson Flex Learning program, which offers “blending learning” options. Like several of the best film schools already mentioned, Emerson will allow for both in-person and online instruction at its campuses. Should a student have a circumstance, health-related, or otherwise, that would necessitate exclusive online learning, Emerson will provide those individuals the ability to request doing so.

Chair Cristina Kotz Cornejo on Emerson University’s response to COVID-19:

“We are living in a unique time. A crossroads where our choices and decisions today will impact our lives in the future. VMA students have a great role to play. As students of media studies and media making you are stepping into a powerful arena… We are all literally in this together. The entire global human population is experiencing these same challenges.

Fortunately, human beings are adaptable creatures. While our lives at the start of 2020 do not resemble our current reality, we must accept how we move forward from here on in.”

Learn more about Emerson’s COVID-19 plan of action. Click here for Emerson’s Production Safety Guidelines.

Emerson College

Loyola Marymount University

Notable alumni include Clark Duke, Brian Helgeland, Gloria Calderón Kellet, Kate Micucci, and Busy Philipps.

Like the American Film Institute, Loyola Marymount University is located in Los Angeles and offers a wide selection of undergraduate and graduate programs for aspiring filmmakers. Prospective students can pursue a BA in Film, Television, and Media Studies, BA in Film and Television Production, BA in Screenwriting, BA in Animation, BA in Recording Arts, MFA in Film and Television Production, MFA in Writing and Producing for Television and MFA in Writing for the Screen.

Outside of the school’s highly regarded film programs, students are drawn to Loyola Marymount University for its proximity to Los Angeles and the film networking and internship opportunities afforded to them during their time at school.

Though LMU allowed for minimal in-person instruction for the fall 2020 semester, it notes that its undergraduate courses will “primarily” be held online. In addition, in accordance with current COVID-19 safety recommendations, it will be able to accommodate the on-campus housing needs of only about one-third of its students that generally require this option.

Learn more about LMU’s reopening plan of action.

Loyola Marymount University

New York University (NYU)

Notable alumni include Donald Glover, Spike Lee, Adam Sandler, Martin Scorsese, M. Night Shyamalan, and Oliver Stone.

New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts is regarded as one of the best film schools across the globe, having played a role in the education of some of the filmmaking world’s most renowned artists.

And like virtually all of the other film schools already mentioned, prospective students just beginning their collegiate careers, as well as those interested in building upon their bachelor work, can grow their filmmaking expertise at NYU. Undergraduate programs in Cinema Studies, Dramatic Writing and Film & Television, and graduate programs in Cinema Studies, Dramatic Writing, and Film are offered through Tisch.

NYU offered fall 2020 classes in three modes: in-person, blended, and remote. The school also notes that students will be required to get COVID-19 testing and submit their results before being allowed into any NYU buildings. Additional quarantine measures may be required for students who have arrived from overseas or restricted U.S. states.

Tisch Press Officer Sarah Binney on NYU’s response to COVID-19:

“The global pandemic has meant that NYU, like virtually all educational institutions, is adapting teaching practices and re-envisioning how we can deliver our ‘learning by doing’ philosophy. NYU’s committed and creative faculty and staff have more than risen to this challenge and have been working diligently all summer to prepare for remote instruction in the fall—we expect classes to be as academically rigorous, creatively challenging, and artistically nourishing as a typical semester.”

Learn more about NYU’s COVID-19 plan of action.

New York University

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)

Notable alumni include Carol Burnett, Francis Ford Coppola, Alexander Payne, Rob Reiner, Tim Robbins, and John Williams.

On the westside of Los Angeles sits the University of California, Los Angeles, better known as UCLA. Over its 100-year history, UCLA has created a name for itself as a highly regarded and competitive school for aspiring filmmakers, and through its School of Theater, Film and Television, students can pursue a degree in any one of its many specialized programs.

Currently, UCLA has an undergraduate program for Film, Television, and Digital Media, as well as graduate programs in Screenwriting, Cinema and Media Studies, Cinematography, Animation, Production/Directing, and the Producers Program. The school also provides a Ph.D. option in Cinema and Media Studies and its Professional Program in various film and TV-related specialties for students interested in a more abbreviated certificate program.

UCLA indicated that approximately only 8% of its fall 2020 classes would be presented in an in-person and/or hybrid format. The rest will be conducted online. Moreover, with minor exceptions, the entirety of classes following the school’s Thanksgiving break will be remote. Housing will be available as well, though given to those with the greatest need with residence halls able to accommodate approximately 5,000 students and the university-owned apartments able to accommodate approximately 1,500 students.

Interim Department Chair Steve Anderson on UCLA’s response to COVID-19:

“At UCLA, some students are continuing to pursue traditional forms of moviemaking… Students wanting to pursue this path [will] work with our Safety Committee and must develop a set of extremely thorough safety plans based on those being implemented in the industry, complete with an on-site safety producer, contingency plans, and whistleblower protocols. Other students have shifted their projects from mini-industry productions to tap into a different tradition of artistic expression that may be more personal or essayistic.

We have also made some changes in the course offerings for the year ahead to provide an intellectual foundation and historical context for rethinking creative practice along these lines. Overall, students are being invited to think in terms of developing a ‘portfolio’ of smaller-scale creations that convey a range of artistic vision, rather than putting all of their energy into creating traditional, monolithic productions.”

Learn more about UCLA’s COVID-19 plan of action.

University of California, Los Angeles

University of Southern California (USC)

Notable alumni include Judd Apatow, Ryan Coogler, Paul Feig, Nahnatchka Khan, George Lucas, and Shonda Rhimes.

Across the city from UCLA stands the University of Southern California and its School of Cinematic Arts. The highly competitive and world-renowned USC has long been the backdrop for the burgeoning careers of many talented and famous filmmakers.

For those looking to begin their training at USC, they can select from several undergraduate and graduate options, such as a BA in Cinema & Media Studies, BA in Animation & Digital Arts, BA or BFA in Cinematic Arts, Film & Television Production, BFA in Writing for Screen & Television, MA in Cinema & Media Studies, MFA in Animation & Digital Arts, MFA in Writing for Screen & Television, MFA in Producing, Directing, Cinematography, Editing, Production Design or Sound and MFA in the Peter Stark Producing Program.

Like UCLA, USC, too, provides interested students in a Ph.D. option in Cinema & Media Studies.

USC stated that its undergraduate students would “exclusively” be taking their fall 2020 classes online. Because of the pandemic, the students will also complete the fall semester by Thanksgiving—final exams included. As a result, USC will not have a fall break. Accordingly, housing and campus activities will be limited as well.

School of Cinematic Arts Dean Elizabeth Daley on USC’s response to COVID-19:

“Our first priority is for the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff and as such all of our classes in the fall will be remote. Our faculty has worked tirelessly to employ virtual production strategies, many of which are employed by the industry, to ensure a rich and robust learning environment during COVID-19. We expect COVID-19 protocols to remain in place for the foreseeable future, so we must prepare students to be COVID-19 ready not only as they approach their projects here at SCA but for their chosen careers in the industry.”

Learn more about USC’s COVID-19 plan of action.

University of Southern California

Wesleyan University

Notable alumni include Michael Bay, Toby Emmerich, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jon Turteltaub, Joss Whedon, and Bradley Whitford.

Last but certainly not least is Wesleyan University, located in Connecticut. With Emerson College, Wesleyan University is only one of two film schools on this list not located in the greater Los Angeles or New York City area, but that has hardly prevented WU from becoming a prestigious center for aspiring filmmakers.

Its College of Film and the Moving Image is comprised of several smaller departments, which are the Center for Film Studies, the Ogden and Mary Louise Reid Cinema Archives, and the Department of Film Studies. What largely sets this school apart from other colleges and universities is its specific focus on undergraduate study for those interested in “image making, history and studies.”

Wesleyan University will be offering students a combination of in-person, remote, and hybrid classes. Though it has not yet finalized this aspect of the fall semester, the school notes that it may go entirely to remote instruction after the Thanksgiving break. Also, while not mandatory, Wesleyan strongly recommends that students undergo COVID-19 testing ahead of the fall start. The school will also be testing all students upon their arrival to campus.

Chair Scott Higgins on Wesleyan University’s response to COVID-19:

“The College of Film and the Moving Image (CFILM) has made nearly all courses available to students remotely. We are providing editing software and hardware to students of need, allowing them to keep up with production assignments. After we went online last spring, alumni and other filmmakers were tremendously generous in visiting our Zoom classes and keeping students in touch with the professional world. We hope to continue that in the fall.

We’ve also developed safety guidelines for student film production on campus so that they can continue creating, though with limited crew size and distancing requirements. Our senior thesis filmmakers will inaugurate our new sound stage, which opens at the end of the month. The Wesleyan Documentary Project, helmed by Randall MacLowry and Tracy Strain, will emphasize use of archival materials and remote interviews this fall. We think it will continue to thrive.”

Learn more about Wesleyan’s COVID-19 plan of action.

Wesleyan University

A Final Word

Given that the circumstances surrounding the pandemic change almost daily, the protocols currently put in place may adjust accordingly. As such, we recommend that all prospective students frequently check their school’s COVID-19 page for the most updated information.

As many of the best film schools have emphasized, however, they are committed to giving students not only an exceptional education but also a safe environment in which to learn. Despite these unprecedented times, aspiring filmmakers can still achieve their career goals through the extraordinary instruction and guidance afforded at any one of these institutions.


Is a film degree worth it?

Alison Stolpa (Careers in Film Staff)

Yes, film school is absolutely worth it. Sure, you can teach yourself a lot from buying a camera and watching classic films…but you’re not going to get the well-rounded education you’d receive in film school, where you’ll take coursework in directing, producing, screenwriting, and acting.

Film school gives you the time and space necessary to create your first films — something you might struggle with if you’re working full-time and attempting to write/direct/produce a movie, all of which are full-time jobs in and of themselves. You may be thinking you’ll power through and do all those things regardless so consider this: film school is where most people create the professional and creative networks that will power them into their first successes as a filmmaker.

Is UCLA a good film school?

Alison Stolpa (Careers in Film Staff)

UCLA is on our list for a reason. The UCLA film program is one of the most well-known study options in the world simply because it’s one of the best film schools in the world. UCLA students learn from instructors with a reputation in the film industry. They learn their craft on top-notch sound stages with top-of-the-line gear.

The opportunities for mentorship and work experience are also incredible. The school’s proximity to Hollywood means students learn from Emmy and Oscar winners and have a better chance of getting a foot in the door through the connections they make at school and via internships.

In addition to the alumni listed above, famous UCLA graduates include Darren Star, Jack Black, James Dean, and Ben Stiller.

Is a film degree useless?

Alison Stolpa (Careers in Film Staff)

Anyone who tells you a film degree is useless is either bitter, not living in a major film industry hub, or a combination of both. Fair enough. Film is not an easy industry to break into, which everyone should know going in. A film degree does not guarantee you’ll have a career in the industry.

It can, though, open doors for you. Especially if you earn a degree in a major center of filmmaking (or attend a school that has a Hollywood or New York semester option), you’ll build professional and creative connections that can serve you your whole life. You’ll learn many elements of filmmaking quicker and more in-depth than you’d probably learn on your own. And you’ll get access to filmmaking gear like professional-level camera and editing software to which you might not otherwise have access.

When you’re contemplating getting a film degree, please consider the costs of education, your commitment to your future field, where you want to live, and how soon you need to be raking in a steady salary. Then you’ll know if film school is right for you.

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