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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.
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All of these schools are a great choice as long as they fit your long-term goals. USC is the best-known program out of all of these, but it has less of an impact in the professional realm because most of film school graduates came from there. Somewhere like the AFI or Columbia will carry much more weight when you finally head into the job market. RIT, Loylola Marymount, Chapman University, University of San Fransisco are all great choices and you may have a better chance of entry and scholarship because they do not have as much of an application rush as the more well known schools. When at one of these schools look for their specialty and try to get a track of skills to run parallel with your production focus. For example, besides simply working on your films you can try to also focus on post-production, cinematography, screenwriting, or producer craft.
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Go for "Hands On"
Since your main goal is to make films you should always try to attend a school where you are constantly in production. The best way to learn how to express yourself through this medium is to do it, and if there is more time spent in classrooms and with text books than out recording then it may be best to look at a different school. You are going to ensure a future in filmmaking by having a solid portfolio with lots of great work, and this just will not happen unless you are out making films the whole time. Also, make sure the program has a huge emphasis on the thesis film. This will be the one project that will get your career started, and if the institution does not require it or put much of a focus on it then you will not that one solid piece to show afterwards. This can make the transition from school to filmmaking as a career very difficult because you will not have much material demonstrating your ability besides your degree. Also see if they help you gain funding for your thesis film.
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Once you have decided on a school make sure to put a solid amount of time into the required materials, obtaining great letters of recommendation, and putting together a great looking portfolio. Deadlines are huge for these schools so remember to send in your applications early, and if they require GRE scores make sure to have done this months in advance to applying. Film school can be a great resource for those who approach it actively, but if you have a passive mentality it can be a very expensive waste of time. Make sure to secure your letters of recommendation months before applying and try to get all your copies early. If you are called in for an interview make sure to do a physical appearance and do not rely on a phone interview as this will likely not show the initiative they are looking for.