This post is mainly for independent writers and directors, especially those who are just getting started. If you're working for someone on a project, it's usually quite obvious who you should ask for notes (and if it isn't, ask the director or producer). Independents, on the other hand, may have a very hard time finding people to give them a "fresh set of eyes".
For starters, don't ask Josh Olson for notes. In fact, don't ask anyone for notes that is unlikely to give them to you (especially if they're prone to being jerky about it).
That category includes everyone you've ever heard of in the business, unless either (1) they explicitly ask you to send them a copy of your script or film cut, or (2) you are somebody (i.e. a peer) in the business and you're offering them a notes exchange.
Even if the well known person is an actual friend, it's usually best to wait for them to ask to read or view something you're working on based on your telling them about what the project is. (This is called pitching, and it's the primary way many scripts get read and films get funded or picked-up -- by generating active interest in the story via a short synopsis.)
However, if you pester someone into giving you feedback, expect the harshest criticism possible since they didn't want to do it in the first place and will therefore be sensitive to every flaw in your work.
Getting helpful critical feedback, however, is not that hard if you know how to go about it. From the suggestions below, you want to cast about for note givers whose notes you respect and can learn from, until you find a pool of people large enough that you can ask about five of them for notes on any given project (how many people that means depends on how prolific you are -- don't ask any one person for notes more than once every 2-3 months, unless you've got a very long term friendship or a very close working relationship with them).
Ask your friends
Some of them are going to be too nice to you, others too harsh out of jealousy, but you might as well ask for notes from the one or two of your friends that you think can be the most straightforward. The idea that asking your friends for feedback is a bad idea because they may not be experts has one clear flaw: Your friends are your audience. Most people who go see moves do not know how to write or make them, yet they are going to critique your work anyway. It's not a bad idea to get some feedback from people like that up-front. You will have to guide them, and you'll probably get a lot of terrible notes from your friends, but hearing about where they are bored or confused is especially helpful since that's where a general audience may also be bored or confused. Just don't take your friends notes too seriously, they are both amateur note givers and biased towards being lenient.
As time goes on, you'll make friends with other writers or directors, professional readers, producers, and other industry professionals and well trained aspirants who will both be your friends and also be excellent sources of knowledgable notes.
These are likely to be your most consistently available source of actually helpful notes, provided you return the favor for them when needed. But keep at least one reader in your pool who isn't a pro, because knowing how the average person responds is helpful, even through all the bad notes you'll get.
(NOTE: Your non-pro friends being a poor audience is mainly true of screenplays, anyway, as those can be confusing and difficult to read for non-experts. Those friends who aren't pros are actually a great audience for edits of actual films, because they're the closest you're going to get to a public test audience without paying for one.)
Even some very experienced writers and filmmakers (usually ones who haven't broken into the A-list yet) still take classes like those offered by the UCLA Professional Program, and workshops at retreats like CineStory or festivals like Austin. (I, myself, learned a lot and made lasting friendships through UCLA, CineStory and Austin.)
Classes serve three major purposes:
- Providing you with deadlines
- Providing you with a group of people who are obligated to give you notes
- Introducing you to people with whom you may later exchange notes and perhaps even collaborate with on projects.
You may get some terrible notes from classmates, but you'll also get some very good notes if you pick classes that are at serious places for serious people.
Since UCLA offers online classes, there's no reason to stay in an awful local class, but don't completely discount local courses (especially those at city and state colleges). However, be cautious when considering for-profit adult education programs. They rarely offer anything that city and state colleges don't, and are often overpriced for the quality of teachers and students you'll be working with.
But if you can't go to any of those, there are also other decent programs out there like Columbia, UT, and various others. In the UK, there is the NFTS, in Germany the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg, and other countries have major film schools as well.
Join a writing and/or filmmaking group
Many writing and filmmaking critique groups form out of class or retreat relationships, so the two suggestions are compatible. But even if you haven't taken any classes, you may find a group in your area through friends, a local college or library, or an online message board.
Some regions may also have film organizations (like San Francisco's now defunct Film Arts Foundation) that have bulletin boards where you can post looking for a group, and which also host events where you can go meet in-person and try to form a group that way.
There are also online sites which function as virtual critique groups. Some are just bulletin board forums, such as those at Save The Cat, where you can discuss craft, meet people virtually, and post requests for critique.
Only under very particular circumstances -- pay someone
Sometimes you'd like notes from a professional reader -- the very sort of person who may read your work for a company you send it to. Surprisingly, this is quite difficult to find, and even more difficult to find at a fair price.
The best paid notes I've found thus far, that are available to the general public, are Scott The Reader's $60 notes. Scott is great, and his notes are totally worth the price. My general rule is that I will not pay more than about $80 for notes (not consulting, mind you, but a single read and one-time delivery of a packet of notes). Sixty to eighty bucks is about what the studios pay, and I'm not asking for anything more than they are.
Also, many people selling note services are not professional readers, they're professional consultants. Most professional readers only resell their services outside the studios through festivals (I've only found one so far that offers direct service -- Scott).
Consultants can occasionally be worth working with -- even some A-listers work with story and script consultants -- if you have developed a personal relationship with them. Most of the successful writers who work with a consultant at all usually work with someone that was a professor or mentor of theirs in their MFA or professional program, or at a retreat, workshop or festival. It's meeting the person and hitting it off with them that's most important, though vetting their credits and credentials is also important (con artistry works because those people seem nice and helpful at first, so do your homework when meeting someone new).
For example I frequently took classes with, and got script notes from, the same UCLA professor: Tim Albaugh. I also often take workshops and get notes from Barri Evins, who is also a working producer in addition to being a story consultant. I work with consultants not because I don't know what I'm doing, but because sometimes that's the only way to get neutral, professional feedback on a project (especially a spec project).
I wouldn't have worked with either of them as a consultant, though, if I'd just stumbled upon their websites. It's the personal relationship that's important, because otherwise your chances of feeling ripped-off by a consultant are very high (because many of them are worse than useless, and those that are good can seem terrible if your styles are incompatible).
Get representation and/or work with a producer
All of these recommendations are especially relevant before you manage to get a manager or develop a relationship with a producer who wants to take an active role in developing you and/or some of your work. Once you do manage to secure one or both of those relationships, your primary notes will come from your manager and/or producer.
Most producers and managers will give you excellent, detailed notes and work with you to see your way through implementing them. Their notes will be geared towards making your work sellable by them, and may conflict with your vision for the project.
You will need to convince them to stay as close to your vision as possible, while recognizing the issues they're raising with your material and addressing them in a way that gets at the core underlying problems which may genuinely cause problems for an audience. That's your job as a writer or director -- to understand the material, and address issues with it in order to make it the best implementation of that material possible.
Working with a manager and/or producer will take your notes to the next level -- but you'll also still want to get notes from about five unattached readers for each major draft of each project. So keep those friends, mentors and hired readers handy, because you'll always want a group of people you can trust who will give you notes about your work that are as agenda-free as humanly possible.