Tom Edgar and Karin Kelly
October 25, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

It was probably a wise move for Dawson Leery to give up his dream of becoming the next Steven Spielberg. The competition is fierce. Film school programs are hotter than the cineplex on a Saturday night, and getting a ticket to the graduate film program of your dreams is tougher than trying to catch a break at an open call. What should you do? First, get your B.A. While there are some great undergrad film programs in the U.S., the serious student filmmaking is done on the graduate level. Second, ask yourself what kind of movies you want to make. If reinventing the Bond franchise for MGM is your dream opus, San Francisco State University’s indie-oriented program is probably not for you. Following, a guide to some of the best graduate film schools in the U.S. and what it takes to get to the head of the class.

AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE
LOCATION Los Angeles
PROGRAM LENGTH Two years
TUITION PER YEAR $18,000
NUMBER OF APPLICANTS 1,200
NUMBER ACCEPTED 125
WEBSITE http://www.afionline.org
THE PITCH AFI thinks of itself as a film conservatory, which explains why it refers to its students as ”fellows.” Unlike other schools, which encourage creative cross-pollination, there’s not much crossover among AFI’s five divisions (directing, producing, cinematography, editing, and production design). Things kick off with ”boot camp” a month-long crash course in moviemaking that puts everyone on the same filmmaking page. Everyone works on three exercise films’ each of which is generally about 15 minutes in length and shot on digital video. Aspiring screenwriters write the screenplays for these projects, producers produce, and so on. Students then pitch their second-year thesis projects to faculty, which gives the green light. During the second year, fellows take a full slate of classes such as Advanced Cinematography Workshop and Advanced Art and Craft of Screenwriting.
THE BACK STORY AFI’s strong suit is production, and fellows graduate truly knowing their way around a set. Another bonus: The faculty are working professionals. Cinematographer Bill Dill (Showtime’s series Soul Food ) teaches DP, and screenwriting prof Michael Ellis penned the upcoming Jennifer Lopez movie The Wedding Planner.
BE SURE TO BRING Your best schmoozing shoes — students are often exposed to Hollywood elite through AFI’s many film events.
LEAVE BEHIND Ultra-low-budget screenplays. This is home for budding Hollywood auteurs.
FAMOUS ALUMNI John Dahl (Rounders), David Lynch (Blue Velvet), Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line), Edward Zwick (Glory)

BOSTON UNIVERSITY
LOCATION Boston
PROGRAM LENGTH Two years
TUITION PER YEAR $24,700
NUMBER OF APPLICANTS 120
NUMBER ACCEPTED 53
WEBSITE http://www.bu.edu/com/filmtv
THE PITCH A nonstop film-orama. Students make a number of shorts, then break into groups of four and make a single 16 mm film. Second year, thesis films are shot, and everyone completes a feature-length screenplay. (Most class members take up to one additional year to finish their films.) Students work with a decent amount of film equipment, some digital video equipment, and several nonlinear editing systems. There is a small sound-mixing studio, and digital audio equipment, though occasionally, students opt to use the film scoring facilities at the nearby Berklee College of Music. The good news? Most students get some sort of scholarship.
THE BACK STORY Thanks to all those group projects, students learn to collaborate amicably — as well as deal with ”creative differences.” These digs are as far away from sunny Beverly Hills as you can get: BU’s film school is housed in a former warehouse. Apartments are costly; winters are cold.
BE SURE TO BRING Thermal underwear
LEAVE BEHIND Your ego
FAMOUS ALUMNI Producer Lauren Shuler Donner (X-Men), screenwriter Scott Rosenberg (Gone in 60 Seconds), producer and former studio executive Joe Roth

CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF THE ARTS
LOCATION Valencia, Calif.
PROGRAM LENGTH Three years
TUITION PER YEAR $19,750
NUMBER OF APPLICANTS 103
NUMBER ACCEPTED 26
WEBSITE http://www.calarts.edu
THE PITCH Thanks to its high-profile alums and the recent animation wars in Hollywood, this campus is a magnet for studio talent scouts. But CalArts’ student body does more than draw pictures. The film/video school offers three programs: Experimental Animation, Film and Video, and Film Directing. There are course requirements, but from the first day students set their own pace. Some make dozens of short videos; others may devote three years to a single film.
THE BACK STORY A conservative bedroom community 45 minutes north of Los Angeles, Valencia is about the last place in the world that purple-haired, black-clad experimental filmmakers would feel at home, but because this is very much an arts school, they flourish.
BE SURE TO BRING Your animation stand and a super-8 movie camera
LEAVE BEHIND Your collection of John Hughes movies
FAMOUS ALUMNI Brad Bird (The Iron Giant), Tim Burton (Batman), John Lassiter (Toy Story)

COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY
LOCATION New York City
PROGRAM LENGTH Three years
TUITION PER YEAR $25,000
NUMBER OF APPLICANTS 500
NUMBER ACCEPTED 90
WEBSITE http://www.columbia.edu/cu/arts/film
THE PITCH Columbia offers programs in producing, screenwriting, and directing. First-year students make a l0-minute video, while second-into-third-year students focus on a 15-minute film, and then a 20-minute thesis film. The directing program includes courses in producing and writing, plus required classes called Directing the Actor. Nobody graduates without writing a feature-length screenplay.
THE BACK STORY The atmosphere is congenial. Students speak highly of the classes on producing, and of the guest lecturer series with well-known filmmakers/actors (Ed Harris, Tim Robbins, Peter Farrelly). Since the program doesn’t dwell on the technical aspects of filmmaking, students often bring in a technical crew from outside the program to help make their projects.
BE SURE TO BRING Aristotle’s Poetics, a fave tome among film buffs
LEAVE BEHIND Your copy of Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting
FAMOUS ALUMNI Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry)

FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY
LOCATION Tallahassee, Fla.
PROGRAM LENGTH Two years, divided into six semesters
TUITION PER YEAR $6,900 (for residents), $24,000 (out-of-state)
NUMBER OF APPLICANTS 350
NUMBER ACCEPTED 24
WEBSITE filmschool.fsu.edu
THE PITCH Florida State’s two-year intensive program focuses squarely on Hollywood-style production. Each student makes three short films within the first four semesters. At the end of the fourth semester; students pitch their thesis project to the faculty. The faculty chooses only five of these projects to finance. The students whose films are funded get to play director, and everyone else works as crew. Because the school pays for these films, it retains ownership; AtomFilms.com has a first-look deal for Florida State student films.
THE BACK STORY The school is well-funded, and there’s plenty of sparkly new equipment. Classes in film history and criticism are required. Students claim they are so busy making films they hardly notice that there’s not much to do in Tallahassee. But the locals are excited about the up-and-coming rep of the school, and are generally happy to help student productions.
BE SURE TO BRING Your alarm clock; students have been booted from the program for chronic tardiness.
LEAVE BEHIND Your beach chair — no time for lounging
FAMOUS ALUMNI Sugar Town cinematographer Kristian Bernier

NEW YORK UNIVERSITY
LOCATION New York City
PROGRAM LENGTH Three years
TUITION PER YEAR $24,000
NUMBER OF APPLICANTS 700
NUMBER ACCEPTED 38
WEBSITE http://www.nyu.edu/tisch/filmtv.html
THE PITCH Finishing on time and within budget is Hollywood’s No. 1 mantra, and the same goes at NYU. The school just restructured its program to encourage students to work within smaller budgets and to finish within three years. During the first year, students make a number of short exercise films. In the second year, everyone completes a documentary on digital video, followed by a third-year agenda that requires shooting a thesis film and writing a feature length screenplay.
THE BACK STORY The equipment is good, though faculty film evaluations at the end of each project can be devastating. Between tuition, the cost of living in Manhattan, and the cost of making all those films, NYU is incredibly expensive, but how many other places besides a Hollywood soundstage can you get New York as your backdrop?
BE SURE TO BRING A thick skin and plenty of moola
LEAVE BEHIND Your Out of Towners-style innocence
FAMOUS ALUMNI Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Ang Lee (The Ice Storm), Tamara Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills), Karyn Kusama (Girlfight), Chris Eyre (Smoke Signals)

SAN FRANCISCO STATE UNIVERSITY
LOCATION San Francisco
PROGRAM LENGTH Three years
TUITION PER YEAR $1,982 (for residents), $6,902 (out-of-state)
NUMBER OF APPLICANTS 150
NUMBER ACCEPTED 15
WEBSITE http://www.cinema.sfsu.edu
THE PITCH Low-budget, independent filmmaking is the specialty at this low-budget, independent film school. First-year students make a short 16 mm film. The next year, severed short projects are followed by such assignments as making a film inspired by Plato’s allegory of the cave. Each student must draft a personal manifesto, and many experiment with other art forms. In year three, students focus on making a thesis film. Students make documentary, narrative, and experimental films in roughly even numbers.
THE BACK STORY Emphasizes old-fashioned film techniques: Students at SF State are learning flatbed editing, optical printing, and even how to hand-process their own film. Tuition is surprisingly inexpensive, but students say equipment can be temperamental and the dotcom economy has made the cost of living in the heart of the city all but impossible for most in attendance.
BE SURE TO BRING Warm clothes (the Bay Area is chillier than most East Coasters think) and a personal movie manifesto
LEAVE BEHIND Dreams of keeping up with your dotcom-rich neighbors
FAMOUS ALUMNI Christa Collins, director of the Sundance short She Smokes

TEMPLE UNIVERSITY
LOCATION Philadelphia
PROGRAM LENGTH Three years
TUITION PER YEAR $8,448 (for residents), $11,616 (out-of state)
NUMBER OF APPLICANTS 200
NUMBER ACCEPTED 15
WEBSITE http://www.temple.edu/fma
THE PITCH A recent infusion of cash due in part to a new dean and a new president has meant new equipment. Students say there’s slightly more emphasis on documentaries. Aspiring filmmakers make a number of short works on film and video in year one, then design their own programs for the next two years (which culminate in a final film, video, or feature-length screenplay).
THE BACK STORY While Philadelphia is not a traditional hotbed of filmmaking, local son M. Night Shyamalan has recently brought some high-profile production to the city, and the Greater Philadelphia Film Office happily assists student filmmakers. Temple also boasts a diverse student body and very personal filmmaking, whether documentary or narrative. It is a commuter school as well, and most students live in other parts of town.
BE SURE TO BRING Your DVD of The Sixth Sense
LEAVE BEHIND Your plans to diet (those Philly cheese steaks are dee-licious
FAMOUS ALUMNI Radha Bharadwaj (Closet Land), producer Lise Yasui (The Gate of Heavenly Peace)

UNIVERSITY OF OHIO
LOCATION Athens, Ohio
PROGRAM LENGTH Three years
TUITION PER YEAR $4,902 (for residents), $10,521 (out-of-state)
NUMBER OF APPLICANTS 125
NUMBER ACCEPTED 18
WEBSITE http://www.ohiou.edu/film
THE PITCH Sort of a freestyle film program. In the first and second years, students learn the basics of production and work on short films. In the third year, students can make a thesis film or write a screenplay.
THE BACK STORY According to students, some of the film equipment is aging, but there is now new digital video and digital audio equipment. The annual Athens International Film Festival is the closest Athens gets to Hollywood. Housing is pretty cheap, and there’s always a trip to nearby Columbus if you want to catch a Big 10 football game.
BE SURE TO BRING Your knowledge of past AIFF winners
LEAVE BEHIND Your urban self
FAMOUS ALUMNI Cinematographer Ed Lachman (Erin Brockovich). Coyote Ugly‘s Piper Perabo attended the university.

UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS
LOCATION Austin
PROGRAM LENGTH Three years
TUITION PER YEAR $2,400 (for residents), $8,000 (out-of-state)
NUMBER OF APPLICANTS 82
NUMBER ACCEPTED 12
WEBSITE http://www.utexas.edu/coc/rtf
THE PITCH Geared toward indie-style narrative filmmaking and documentaries. Students begin by completing several short exercises on video, then a 10-minute ”pre thesis” and, ultimately, a 30-minute third-year thesis film or video. Its film studies department gets four stars.
THE BACK STORY Austin is home to a famous music scene, with its own Sundance-esque music- and now film-fest held every March. It’s also the site of a screenwriters’ conference in the fall. Reports are the equipment is good, though most of the new money is going into digital video equipment and postproduction facilities. Digital video will likely be more popular than film here in the near future.
BE SURE TO BRING Your car, your club-hopping earplugs, and your hiking boots (LBJ’s Hill Country is just around the bend)
LEAVE BEHIND Your stress pills
FAMOUS ALUMNI Fargo‘s Joel Coen attended.

UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, LOS ANGELES
LOCATION Los Angeles
PROGRAM LENGTH Four years
TUITION PER YEAR $6,685.50 (for residents), $16,927.50 (out-of-state)
NUMBER OF APPLICANTS 600
NUMBER ACCEPTED 21
WEBSITE http://www.tft.ucla.edu
THE PITCH Offers specialized programs in screenwriting, producing, animation, and directing. The focus is on independent-style filmmaking, but Hollywood is in the air. Famous filmmakers often drop by to teach, and various donors have contributed a lot of money to the School of Theater, Film, and Television that may help the students pay for their movies. UCLA has a great film archive, and its ongoing screenings of rare films are unique among film schools. Students make two shorts in the first year, a 15-minute film the second and third years, and a 30-minute film the third and fourth years. Most students still shoot on 16 mm, and the school’s DV equipment is largely used for documentaries. UCLA also has a respected animation department and a hypermedia studio for interactive and Web-based media.
THE BACK STORY The most down-to-earth of the three major film schools in L.A., and students do not directly compete with one another as they do at USC. Good locations are plentiful, and the weather, of course, is beautiful all year round. But even in this company town, some locals dislike film crews and students say it’s common to have shoots disrupted by folks asking to be paid.
BE SURE TO BRING A car and a lot of sunscreen
LEAVE BEHIND Your Armani suits (at least until the third year)
FAMOUS ALUMNI Charles Burnett (To Sleep With Anger), Alexander Payne (Election), Francis Ford Coppola

UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
LOCATION Los Angeles
PROGRAM LENGTH Three years
TUITION PER YEAR $14,698
NUMBER OF APPLICANTS 500 (per semester)
NUMBER ACCEPTED 100 (50 per semester)
WEBSITES http://www.cntv.usc.edu
THE PITCH Probably the most Hollywood-oriented of any film school — not that there’s anything wrong with that. USC offers specialized programs in producing, screenwriting, and production. In the first year, all students make five short films; in the second year, students team up for a ”crew” project. That project is, in turn, pitched to faculty. If it’s selected, the school foots the bill for the finished piece.
THE BACK STORY The equipment is good and plentiful. Great courses on film theory and production. As part of its student body support, USC has licensed a hundred films to the popular website AtomFilms.com.
BE SURE TO BRING A car and your copy of Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls
LEAVE BEHIND Your framed photo of Harvey and Bob Weinstein — they’re so New York.
FAMOUS ALUMNI George Lucas, Ron Howard, Robert Zemeckis

Additional reporting by Amy Feitelberg and Allyssa Lee; All tuition and admissions numbers are for 2000-01


BACK TO SCHOOL?

To enroll, or not to enroll? If that’s still your question, here are three reasons why you can purge the urge to matriculate — and three reasons why you shouldn’t:

DON’T GO
1. DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY Ten years ago, you needed hundreds of thousands of dollars, worth of equipment to make a movie. Film school became the most affordable way to work, since you’d be given access to whatever you needed, Digital video has changed all that. The equipment — a DV camera. a computer — costs relatively little, so a DV feature can be made for an amount comparable to a year at most schools.
2. DIRECTORS’ COMMENTARIES ON DVD In the late ’80s, a school like, say, NYU seemed worth the big bucks, since you never knew when Martin Scorsese might drop by and spend an evening talking through Raging Bull scene by scene. Today, similar discussions are yours for the price of a DVD player.
3. DOTCOMS Used to be, not many people ever saw short films. But thanks to websites like AtomFilms.com, iFilm.net, MediaTrip,com, and others, more people than ever are interested in shorts. So what if they’re watching at work on a postage-stamp-size window? At least they’re watching.

GO
1. CLASSMATES Once you’ve written that great screenplay and bought your DV equipment, you’ll still need a dozen or so technicians willing to work for little or no pay to get your epic made, Enter your film school friends, who are largely unemployed and itching to make movies.
2. EXPERIENCE You’re not Orson Welles, okay? Your first feature won’t be a masterpiece. At school, you can shoot four or five shorts and work as a crew member on dozens of other sets: and by the time you’re finished, you’ll have enough experience to make a feature without completely screwing it up.
3. TEACHERS Film students complain endlessly about their classes and teachers, but let’s face it — whatever their faults, without them you just might end up making the next Ishtar.

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