Which one is for me?
Each of the best schools is specifically geared towards a certain type of filmmaker and student. If you are most interested in learning how to work with the studio system - how to deal with professional financing and distribution, both the American Film Institute and the University of Southern California are well known for having this kind of focus and having very solid bridges to the studios. If you want to learn everything about independent cinema, including how to do fully independent financing and production, then New York University is probably the best choice. Remember, great independent and studio filmmakers have come from all of these universities so it does not fully determine what type of filmmaker you have to be. If you are looking into making both narrative and documentary films you should find a school that can represent both of these disciplines.
New York University and University of Southern California offer classes in both of these disciplines, while it will be much harder to do documentary work at the American Film Institute and the California Institute of the Arts. If you have less of a background in film production it is best to apply to schools that do not necessarily require a video portfolio, like UCLA or Columbia. These schools are more interested in having well rounded, creative students. They require portfolio materials from a variety of fields, from photography to written pieces. You should also know exactly what type of filmmaking education you want, whether you want to focus strictly on directing or if you want to jump into all areas of production. Most schools give you a better-rounded experience, while schools like the American Film Institute Conservatory will be a very focused program on the position of your choice. If you want to know everything, from production design to abstract editing techniques, go with New York University or the California Institute of the Arts. The California Institute of the Arts is one of the more interesting choices because it goes deep into more obscure avenues of filmmaking, from experimental movies to large-scale video productions. This makes it more of a niche school and if that intrigues you then it is really the only well known school that offers that type of non-traditional film education. If you want to have a rich background in film theory and criticism, then the best bet is USC, which requires more of these courses than any other school. Since money is so critical when it comes to these programs you have to look at the cost. New York University is the most expensive of the “big six," and can run up to $60,000 a year once all the fees and production costs are factored in. That can be difficult for anyone, especially when the program can run for about four years. UCLA is the cheapest, and if you qualify for state tuition assistance you can get it down below $16,000 a year. UCLA is the only school that offers in-state tuition reductions. The time it takes you to go through that school's program is also a factor, as most programs take between three and five years. When you are paying an extrodinary amount and putting your career on hold it is often wise to do it as quickly as possible. The American Film Institute has the quickest program, and only lasts two and a half years. Rochester Institute of Technology will teach you more areas of filmmaking than most, but you may lose some of the direction in other areas.