The United States is full of excellent film and video schools, but finding a program that’s specific to documentary making can be a challenge. If documentary filmmaking is the goal, you’ll need to make sure you’ve picked the right film school.
We’ll start with the New York Film Academy, then continue to some places you may not have seen before. Don’t worry, though, every school on this list is well worth considering.
Best Documentary Film Schools
Whether you’re looking for documentary masters programs, media studies training, or a good cinematography course, finding the right school is everything. Documentary film and video can be a tough nut to crack, so it’s important to find somewhere with the resources and staff to support you.
Check out our recommendations below.
1. New York Film Academy
New York Film Academy Website – Here
The New York Film Academy is an excellent choice for those interested in documentary filmmaking. Their documentary filmmaking school offers the training, experiences, and resources you’ll need to improve your career prospects and boost your skills.
Expect excellent teaching and plenty of opportunities to practice what you’ve learned in the real world. You’ll be making that world-changing documentary before you know it!
New York Film Academy Admissions
Documentary filmmaking can be a competitive subject to study depending on the school you choose. This documentary film school offers rolling admissions, meaning you can apply year after year.
There’s no specific GPA requirements, but applicants are expected to have a good grasp of the English language and show a genuine interest in exploring the art form, in your case documentary filmmaking.
New York Film Academy Tuition
The specific tuition you should expect to pay will be determined by your chosen course. The masters program in documentary filmmaking will run you almost $15,000 per semester plus a $1500 equipment fee.
New York Film Academy Notable Alumni
Not only will you be studying in New York City, you’ll also be studying at a school with a ton of notable alumni. Past documentary studies students at this film school include Elaine Minionis, Todd Leatherman, and Laura Snow, all have whom have produced fantastic work and collaborated with countless names in the industry.
2. Maine Media Workshops and College
Documentary Filmmaking Page – Here
Interested in documentary filmmaking? Want a film school with a ton of different options? This college probably has a program for you. From 4-week intensives to longer in-depth explorations, this school should have everything you need to master the art of the documentary film.
Maine Media Workshops and College Admissions
Getting into film school can be tough. Knowing as much as possible about each location’s admission requirements can help a great deal. For this option, the requirements are very flexible for their intensive and weeks-long workshops.
Generally, students just need to demonstrate an interest and some aptitude in the chosen topic. For their masters program and more in-depth documentary filmmaking courses, some form of bachelor’s degree and a formal application process is required.
Maine Media Workshops and College Tuition
This one is tricky to pin down thanks to the broad variety of different programs available. Intensive courses cost roughly a few thousand dollars. Those opting for the masters program should be prepared for over $50,000 plus other fees.
Maine Media Workshops and College Alumni
The Maine Media alumni network is made up of over 35,000 graduates and working professionals. It’s designed to support graduates for many years after leaving the college. With the right connections, your documentary career could be off to the best possible start.
3. Stanford University
Documentary Filmmaking Page – Here
The Art and History department of Stanford University offers an exceptional documentary filmmaking course. Students learn everything they’ll need to pursue rewarding careers as documentary makers. You’ll be exploring both historical and critical frameworks to broaden your horizons.
Stanford University Admissions
For the documentary filmmaking masters, the following is expected of applicants:
- A statement of purpose
- Three letters of recommendation
- Transcripts from post secondary institutions attended
- A bachelor’s degree from a US university or globally accredited institution
Stanford University Documentary Filmmaking Tuition
The good news is that Stanford University has a reasonably generous scholarship scheme. The final amount you pay is determined by you and your family’s financial situation. On average, an academic year at Stanford costs around $75,000-$80,000 for students.
Stanford University Alumni
As a much larger institution than say the NYFA, Stanford has a formidable alumni network in the tens of thousands. It’s easy for graduates to stay plugged into this resource and use it throughout their working careers.
4. Berkley Graduate School of Journalism
Documentary Filmmaking Page – Here
Documentary filmmaking can be a horrendously competitive career to get into. For this reason, it helps to choose a school that will give you an edge. For many, Berkley is the perfect option. With an incredible faculty, excellent equipment, and a career-focused master’s program, this one is worth considering
Berkley Graduate School of Journalism Admissions
If you have a relevant bachelor’s degree, letters of recommendation, and a well-written statement of purpose, you stand a great chance of being considered for this amazing documentary film course. Just remember that you may have to try for a couple years in a row.
Berkley Graduate School of Journalism Tuition
As with most US universities, final costs are subject to change and are influenced by your individual circumstances. Non-residents can expect costs of around $20,000 per semester. Residents enjoy a reduced fee of around $14,500.
Berkley Graduate School of Alumni
The reputation and track record of Berkley graduates far precedes them. There’s no golden ticket to a successful career in documentary filmmaking, but the alumni network of this college is unlikely to hinder your progress.
5. Duke University Center for Documentary Filmmaking
Documentary Filmmaking Page – Here
This faculty at Duke University offers an MFA in the experimental and documentary arts. Students will leave with a deep understanding of the art form, its theory, and the practical skills required to produce high-quality work.
Duke University Admissions
Accomplished artists and students should consider this documentary masters course. You’ll need a relevant bachelor’s degree in something like filmmaking, theater, art, or art history. There’s also a formal applications process including letters of recommendation and statements of purpose.
Tuition at Duke University
If you’re considering this masters in documentary filmmaking, expect yearly costs of between $50,000 and $60,000. For low-income households and high-achieving students, a variety of scholarship and support programs are available.
It’s always worth checking these out if you’re unsure, they can save you tens of thousands of dollars if you’re eligible.
Documentary Masters Programs – Our Cheat Sheet
This section is just a brief overview of the masters programs in documentary filmmaking that we’ve discussed on this page. Scan it here to get a quick idea of what’s on offer.
New York Film Academy
- Documentary Filmmaking Masters
- Amazing reputation and staff
- Plenty of notable documentary alumni
- The New York film scene is very healthy
Maine Media College
- General MFA with some relevant training for documentary filmmaking
- Excellent resources and alumni network
- Slightly more affordable tuition
- Workshops and other courses also available
- Great masters program for documentary film students
- Prestigious university with a huge alumni network
- Great balance of theory and practical skills
- Wonderful campus
Berkley Graduate School of Journalism
- Well-designed documentary film masters
- Thorough applications process
- Dedicated school for documentary filmmaking and related disciplines
- Scholarship schemes are available
- Masters in documentary filmmaking and experimental arts
- Holistic and critical frameworks related to the art form
- Dedicated center within the university
- Tuition is expensive but some support is available
A boom in documentary cinema
Film festivals like Tribeca, Sundance, Toronto, and Berlin have seen a boom in documentary media over a decade, with the trend shifting from fiction films to documentary filmmaking.
Additionally, the rise of streaming services, independent film, and the need to offer a huge library of media content to users has led to a significant uptick in the number of documentary films released every year.
In 2022 alone, there have been more than 30 documentary releases on major streaming platforms such as Netflix and Hulu.
Although documentary films see varying levels of financial success, there’s no doubt that the demand for documentary media is on the rise.
The medium of telling stories through a video camera has become a form of visual anthropology and is gaining rapid popularity.
As a result, it’s no surprise that there has been a huge boom in students who wish to study film and documentary production.
How to Become a Documentary Filmmaker
Becoming a documentary filmmaker can be an obscure and competitive process. Everyone has their own unique journey to forging a career in this art form. Check out some of our brief tips below.
Things prospective documentary filmmakers should ask their schools
Like any other programs, if you want to get into film and media arts, there are some important questions you must ask your school before committing to a program:
- How many students from your film programs have gone on to produce full-length documentaries?
- What kind of financial aid is available to prospective students?
- How much time do students have to produce their documentary films in school? (it should not be too long, nor too short)
- Is it possible to make a portfolio film outside of college or must it be done from within the college itself?
- What kind of career opportunities are available to students after graduation?
- How is the track record of faculty members?
Get a Feel for Each School
Choosing a good school is essential in getting the training you need. New York Film Academy? Berkley? Somewhere else entirely? It will all come down to who you are and the type of work you’re hoping to make. Try to get a feel for as many school as possible before making your final applications.
The Love Comes First
A career in the arts and media can be incredibly challenging. It’s very important that you genuinely love the discipline and it brings you joy. Pursuing a documentary career for ‘fame’ or riches won’t get you very far. You need the passion to keep you going.
Persistence is Key
If you love what you do, you’ll want to keep doing it. To a certain extent, ‘making it’ as a filmmaker is a numbers game. You need to keep producing work and finding ways to connect with people. Don’t give up too quickly; Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Create a portfolio
One of the most important things you need to achieve in a documentary filmmaking school is to create a portfolio that you can use to show potential financial backers and studios your talent.
Indeed, the core of documentary media studies is to gain hands-on experience in the documentary arts.
All of your smaller projects throughout your training as well as your final project should be something that you can take to a studio to demonstrate your skill in documentary production.
Career opportunities in documentary film production
As a producer
The producer is the individual(s) who makes it all happen in a film. From coming up with an idea, developing it, building a team to make the film, and taking it to market, the producer plays a key role.
Upon graduating from a documentary program, you’ll know the ins and outs of the field and develop great contacts to start producing documentary work.
As a director
The director is responsible for the creative part of the filmmaking process. The difference between a good film and a bad film is a talented director: in many cases, the story can be so-so but a talented director can take that and turn it into a gripping film.
As a director, you’re not limited to just documentary filmmaking. There are many creative industries within film for you to explore.
As a researcher/writer
A key part of documentary production is solid research. After all, you need a good story to tell, backed by research and facts.
High-quality, journalistic research is the backbone of a good visual story.
As a cinematographer
The cinematographer works in close conjunction with the director and is almost as responsible for the final product as the director.
As a cinematographer, you’ll have a creative outlet to visualize the final product as you see fit. There’s also a lot of technical know-how required to operate film equipment and get the result you are looking for.
Documentary Studies – Final Thoughts
We hope you’ve found our recommendations on this page helpful. Remember that not everyone gets in on their first year of applications. You may have to keep trying for a while before you’re accepted. With a little resilience and the right mindset, you could be looking at an exciting new career.