Popular Master's Courses • Postgraduate

Lights, Camera, Action: The Ultimate Guide to Pursuing a Master’s in Film

POSTED ON 05/31/2024 BY The Red Pen

Master's in Film in the US

In the mesmerising realm of cinema, where stories break free from the confines of reality and emotions come alive on the canvas of the silver screen, the path from aspiring filmmaker to accomplished artist is an extraordinary adventure. Film school is the threshold to this enchanting world, an institution that imparts the wisdom, expertise, and connections necessary for budding filmmakers to breathe life into their visions. As the siren call of filmmaking continues to echo across the globe, it has lured a diverse tapestry of students from every corner of the world to the doors of film studies programmes. In this blog, we embark on a cinematic odyssey to navigate the vast universe of master’s programmes in film school. Are you a screenwriter or a director? An actor or a producer? VFX or costume design? This blog will help you understand the application process for a master’s programme in film and how you can benefit from training in specific crafts. 

What is a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Film?

A Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Film is a graduate-level programme designed to provide advanced training and education to aspiring filmmakers and professionals in film and motion pictures. This programme typically focuses on developing a deep understanding of the art and craft of filmmaking.

When contemplating a master’s degree in film, students must decide what they wish to study. They can choose the practical programme, where they will receive instruction in one specific aspect, such as storytelling, cinematography, acting, VFX, directing, editing, screenwriting, or production. Alternatively, students can select film theory programmes which emphasise the academic understanding of film as an art form, delving into its historical and cultural context. 

This choice can significantly impact their career prospects after graduation. Practical programmes prepare students for careers in the business and art of commercial cinema production, equipping them with specific skills needed for success in the industry. On the other hand, theoretical programmes emphasise the academic understanding of film and are better suited for those who wish to teach. 

There are numerous areas of study within an MFA in film, and in the US, course offerings differ by university. Most graduate schools have small class sizes for MFA in Film courses, traditionally under 30 members for screenwriters, under 10 for producers, under 30 for actors and under 10 for directors. The numbers, however, vary by university. For example, at Columbia University, the MFA Film studio classes (directing, writing, etc.) have at most 12 students per class. The number of students per class in lecture courses ranges from 30 to 70.

What are the top 5 US graduate schools for an MFA in Film 

When embarking on a journey as exciting and transformative as pursuing a master’s in film, selecting the right institution is a critical first step. The choice you make can profoundly influence your education, your network, and your future career in the world of cinema. We’ve handpicked nine graduate schools offering an MFA in Film and what when selecting a film school and provide essential tips to help you make an informed decision.

1) USC School of Cinematic Arts (SCA)

The USC School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) is the only institution worldwide to offer a comprehensive education in all significant cinematic disciplines. At the postgraduate level, students can pursue a Master of Arts in Cinema & Media Studies, delving into cultural, artistic, and commercial aspects of media creation. Graduates gain a nuanced understanding of how creativity, technology, business, politics, history, and ideology intersect globally. 

The Peter Stark Producing Program is the perfect choice for producers, offering a comprehensive education in the diverse entertainment industry. Affectionately known as “Starkies,” programme participants can explore and refine essential skills like creativity, entrepreneurship, and effective management. The curriculum encompasses a variety of subjects, such as the art of crafting and developing stories, the history of entertainment, economic principles, studio management, budgeting, marketing, and the intricacies of independent production.

Students can also explore the John C. Hench Division of Animation + Digital Arts, Cinema & Media Studies, Film & Television Production, Interactive Media & Games Division, Media Arts + Practice (MA+P), the John Wells Division of Writing for Screen & Television, John H. Mitchell Business of Cinematic Arts Program, and Expanded Animation Research + Practice. 

Student facilities include the same state-of-the-art technologies used in the media industry. They can access the Oculus Development Kit and Render Farm for VFX work. Its library has prestigious collections like the Warner Bros. Archives and the Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive. Post-production resources are ample, with Avid editing bays, sound mixing rooms, and visual effects studios. For animation and interactive media projects, SCA offers game development kits, animation cubicles, and play testing suites. Students can access several screening facilities, from small theatres to the Eileen Norris Cinema Theatre Complex and an IMAX theatre for large-format projects. The school provides stages for various purposes, including television, film, VFX, performance capture, and green screen stages. 

SCA’s faculty members are accomplished professionals in the media arts with extensive experience in the field. They have received numerous accolades, including Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes, NAACP Leadership Awards, and more. Faculty members are also members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Writers Guild of America. 

2) UCLA Theater, Film and Television (UCLA TFT)

Located in Los Angeles, California, UCLA TFT has a rich history of producing exceptional talent in the entertainment industry. What sets it apart is its commitment to innovation, diversity, and a deep connection to the heart of the global entertainment industry. Postgraduates can pursue an MFA in Animation, Cinematography, Producer’s Program, Production/Directing – Documentary, Production/Directing and Screenwriting. They can also pursue an MA and PhD in Cinema & Media Studies. 

Committed to fostering growth, UCLA TFT has a rich tapestry of academic resources, and each student has access to tools that enable academic prowess and innovation. For instance, The UCLA Film & Television Archive is widely recognised for its innovative initiatives aimed at rescuing, preserving, and presenting moving image media. The archive is committed to the ongoing exploration and appreciation of our contemporary visual heritage, ensuring that it remains accessible for future generations to enjoy. Founded in 1965, the Archive is the second-largest repository of motion pictures and broadcast programming in the United States, following the Library of Congress. It also proudly maintains the title of the world’s most extensive collection held by a university.


NYU Tisch offers postgraduate programmes in Art & Public Policy, Dance, Design for Stage & Film, Grad ActingGraduate Musical Theatre Writing, Performance Studies, Cinema Studies, Graduate Film, Dramatic Writing, and Virtual Production

This institution was established as the School of Arts in 1965 at New York University. Its primary mission was to provide comprehensive conservatory training in theatre and film within the dynamic environment of a prominent research university. Over a short span, it solidified its position as one of the nation’s leading arts institutions. The institution swiftly expanded its offerings, creating additional departments dedicated to dance, theatre design and lighting, and cinema studies.

In 1982, a generous gift from Laurence A. and Preston Robert Tisch made it possible to acquire and renovate the iconic 721 Broadway building, which now serves as the primary location for most of the school’s programmes. In recognition of the remarkable contribution by the Tisch family, the school was officially renamed the Tisch School of the Arts.

Today, the Tisch School of the Arts educates and nurtures the future generation of storytellers across multiple locations in the Greenwich Village neighbourhood. These include spaces on Broadway (665, 715, 719, 721, and 725), 111 Second Avenue, 194 Mercer Street, and various acting conservatories. In 2019, Tisch expanded its reach by launching a new location at 370 Jay Street in Brooklyn, where students from the NYU Game Center, Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, ITP, and IMA programmes now study.

4) American Film Institute (AFI) Conservatory

Nestled within an eight-acre picturesque campus, AFI Conservatory is in Hollywood. As the epicentre of the professional filmmaking community, it is a stone’s throw away from proximity to studios, networks, and post-production facilities.

It provides various educational opportunities, including an MFA degree across six specialised disciplines: Cinematography, Directing, Editing, Producing, Production Design, and Screenwriting. Over two years, Fellows collaborate with classmates to write, produce, design, direct, shoot and edit four to 10 films. Each year, Fellows craft up to 175 films. In doing so, they acquire the confidence to step onto a professional set and hold their ground alongside experts in their chosen field. AFI Conservatory maintains an intimate learning environment with small class sizes and a student-to-faculty ratio of 3:1. This close-knit setting enables one-on-one guidance provided by a faculty composed of experienced professional filmmakers, with extensive backgrounds in shepherding projects from the written script to the finished screen product. Guest lecturers include Steve McQueen, Sofia Coppola, Barry Jenkins, Brian Grazer, and Ari Aster. 

5) Columbia University School of the Arts

Columbia University’s School of the Arts is home to one of the world’s most renowned film schools. Led by the late Milos Forman, the Academy Award-winning director of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Amadeus,” Columbia’s Graduate Film Program gained recognition for its unwavering commitment to storytelling, its innovative curriculum and distinguished faculty, comprising industry professionals respected both in Hollywood and the independent film community. 

Columbia’s Film MFA programs, which include Screenwriting & Directing, Creative Producing, and Writing for Film and Television, stand as prestigious platforms for emerging filmmakers. The first year of study is a shared experience for all students, irrespective of their chosen concentration. This comprehensive curriculum seamlessly blends producing, directing, and writing elements with technical training, history, and theory. The goal is to equip students with a profound comprehension of dramatic filmmaking’s fundamental principles and practical aspects. This distinctive, integrated programme places a central emphasis on film as a medium for narrative expression. Students pursuing each of the three concentrations engage in collaborative projects that require their involvement during the winter break and the summer between their initial and subsequent years of studies. The institute also hosts the Columbia University Film Festival (CUFF), a five-day event to showcase the thesis work of the Film MFA Program. 

 Each school mentioned above has its specialities. But they are not the only master’s in film programmes. You can also explore postgraduate film degrees at Yale, Loyola Marymount, Chapman, and CalArts

What are the application requirements for an MFA in Film in the US

The application process for master’s programs in film is not the same for every college or every programme, but that being said, here is a general overview of what applicants can expect: 

1) Research and shortlisting

While shortlisting graduate schools to pursue an MFA, applicants should consider several key factors. One initial decision is whether to be near major cities like Los Angeles, New York, or Atlanta, as these locations offer valuable networking opportunities and industry connections. Assessing peer support and networking potential is equally crucial, especially for international students. Applicants should connect with former students and current applicants via social media for application insights. However, remember that creative programme applications aren’t one-size-fits-all. 

Different programmes have unique teaching methodologies, so prioritise the approach that aligns with your goals. For example, schools like NYU Tisch, UCLA, and Columbia may adopt a conservatory-style approach to screenwriting, while USC may focus more on Hollywood’s commercial cinema aspects.

2) Review requirements

Each institution will have specific admission requirements, so carefully review the admission guidelines provided by each institution. These requirements often include academic transcripts, Letters of Recommendation, a Statement of Purpose, a resume, and occasionally standardised tests such as GRE, TOEFL or IELTS. Students who have completed their bachelor’s degree in India may also be asked to submit a WES evaluation to validate their educational credentials. 

3) Portfolios

Your portfolio is a critical part of your application. It should include samples of your work, such as short films, screenplays, storyboards, or any relevant creative projects. Students are generally assessed based on the merit of their portfolios. Here are four types of portfolios: 

  • A screenwriter’s portfolio: Screenwriters create screenplays for film or TV dramas, developing them from original ideas, adapting existing stories, or contributing to ongoing TV projects. Their scripts vividly depict settings, emotions, and how scenes translate to the screen. While a background in English, film, or creative writing can be beneficial, it’s not mandatory. Typically, film graduate programmes expect a screenwriter’s portfolio to include two TV pilot scripts or a full-length feature film script. However, exceptions exist. USC, for instance, expects applicants to submit an autobiographical character sketch, two scenes, which you must script out, a two-page extended essay of a challenging experience that you have faced, and a 10-page creative writing sample. 
  • An actor’s portfolio: Actors often undergo conservatory auditions as part of the admissions process. Applications typically require monologues or film reels. Prior training is optional.  Most, if not all, drama school programs will ask you to write an artistic statement of 500 words to share your vision and experiences.
  • A director’s portfolio: Programmes for directors are often the longest, typically taking three to four years. Aspiring directors must submit a directorial approach essay. Some programmes ask for videos that showcase your best work as a director. The video should be 15 to 20 minutes long. 
  • A producer’s portfolio: Production programmes are often the most competitive because they take in a tiny cohort of students. Programmes like the Peter Stark program, which have made the careers of people like Ryan Coogler (Black Panther, Fruitvale Station) and Kevin Feige (Marvel), expose aspiring producers to the full spectrum of the entertainment business, helping them build networks and connections to have a successful career. They traditionally ask students to submit a video introduction explaining why they think they are a good fit for their programme and answer several questions about their coursework. 

4) Interviews

Most graduate programmes require student interviews with the admissions committee. These interviews are usually under 20 minutes. Typically, you discuss your interest in your craft and why you wish to pursue the programme. Having robust, compelling and personal reasons for attending the programme helps immensely and will allow your interviewer to gauge your interest and compatibility with the rest of your cohort.

What are the financial considerations for an MFA in Film in the US?

Pursuing a graduate degree in film is an expensive affair. The tuition fee for aspiring directors is usually higher due to its length and the equipment involved. Students must also invest in a high-quality camera, a large hard drive, and numerous other materials for this programme. Shorter programmes like acting, production and screenwriting are less expensive.  Programs can range between $33,238 for UCLA to $79,217 for Columbia.

Students can also consider applying for scholarships to balance the cost of education. UCLA, for instance, provides merit-based fellowships for international students, offering excellent value for those interested in studying film. UCLA’s Fellowship amount usually varies between $5000 to $15000, almost 50 percent off the total annual tuition cost of $33,238 annually. 

The annual tuition fees at NYU Tisch and USC School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) are perhaps the highest at $73,698 for NYU and $117,242 for USC, respectively. However, the Dramatic Writing programme at NYU Tisch and USC offers full and partial scholarships to students per year. In general, USC awards are modest and can range from $1,000 to $25,000. Awards are made based on financial need, artistic excellence and professional promise. Graduate students can also benefit from TAships, SAships, and Fellowships, which can significantly enhance their knowledge in their study area while gaining hands-on experience.

Pursuing a master’s degree in film can be a transformative journey that opens doors to many exciting career opportunities in the film and entertainment industry. International students passionate about filmmaking can benefit from top-notch education, industry connections, and a nurturing environment. For more information on film schools, admissions, and resources, please reach out. Meanwhile, you may also read our blogs on where you should apply for a master’s abroad and secrets to acing applications to top graduate schools