By the time Conor Hanney ’14 sat down to start his senior thesis for his film, television, and theatre major, he knew exactly what he wanted to do for a living — write for live-action TV targeting the kids and family demographic.
And within 16 months of graduation, that’s exactly what he started doing.
Hanney, a writer, lyricist, and composer for Netflix, works on various family programming, including the live-action comedy series The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia, The Healing Powers of Dude, and Prince of Peoria. He is currently working on the upcoming Kenny Ortega musical series Julie and The Phantoms.
Before joining Netflix in 2018, he also wrote for the Disney XD show Gamer’s Guide to Pretty Much Everything and worked as a creative executive for DreamWorks Animation.
“It’s a dream,” Hanney said of his career path. “I’m hyper-fortunate to go into a writers’ room every day, to go on set, and to have a small hand in making potentially important content seen by the people who happen to find our icons on Netflix.”
In addition to his day job, Hanney is active in the Los Angeles musical theatre and improv scene, where his work often stars individuals with cognitive and physical disabilities. In the past three years, his shows have garnered critical acclaim and a total of 13 awards plus 11 nominations from the Hollywood Fringe Festival.
He is taking three of his shows Off-Broadway at the end of March, including The One-Man Improvised Musical. In that show, which he premiered in 2018 in Notre Dame’s Washington Hall, he makes up an hour-long musical on-the-spot by himself based only on an audience suggestion.
He also ghostwrites autobiographies, one of which was featured on the BBC’s Shark Tank equivalent, Dragons’ Den.
As Hanney balances these interests in pursuit of his ultimate goal of creating his own series, he is very appreciative of the connections he developed as an undergraduate.
“The FTT department, associate professor Christine Becker, and the College of Arts and Letters gave me literally every foot in the door,” he said. “Every subsequent opportunity I’ve had can be traced directly back to Notre Dame.”
“The FTT department, associate professor Christine Becker, and the College of Arts and Letters gave me literally every foot in the door. Every subsequent opportunity I’ve had can be traced directly back to Notre Dame.”
Turning a hobby into a major
Hanney grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, and in high school, he became involved with his school’s award-winning student television network. The experience piqued his interest in TV production and got him certified by Apple on the industry-standard editing software at the time.
But when Hanney arrived at Notre Dame, he still saw TV as more of a side project and declared finance as his first major, with FTT as a second major.
“It was just sort of a passing hobby,” he said. “The plan was to go into finance, but first, I decided to do an internship in Los Angeles the summer after my sophomore year — after which I had no interest in trying finance.”
That summer, Hanney served as an intern in reality TV development for Red Hot Poker Productions, which had a first-look deal with Sony — an opportunity made possible by a grant from the Meruelo Family Center for Career Development.
The experience, combined with an education grounded in the fundamentals of film and television theory, proved pivotal.
“One of the biggest barriers to entry in the entertainment industry is lack of knowledge about its mechanics — it just doesn’t seem tangible,” he said. “With my summer internship in L.A., I was able to do a ton of informational interviews and start to piece together the nebulous path into something more coherent and actionable.”
Building a writing career
Hanney returned to campus for his junior year determined to make television writing his career path.
He took a course called Television as a Storytelling Medium with Becker, which ultimately formed the foundation of his senior thesis. Becker served as his adviser for that project, which consisted of a 50-page critical studies paper and seven half-hour TV pilot scripts for the tween demographic.
While Hanney was still an undergraduate, she connected him with a showrunner at Disney XD who eventually assigned him his first TV script assignment.
She also introduced him to an alumna, Katie O’Connell Marsh ’91, the new head of the live-action TV division for DreamWorks Animation. O’Connell Marsh read Hanney’s thesis and hired him as her creative executive at 23.
Throughout his fast-paced early career path, Hanney has maintained a close relationship with the special needs community — a connection that dates back to high school, when Hanney first worked as a counselor at Camp I Am Special in Jacksonville.
Since moving to Los Angeles, he has begun teaching improv to the Born to Act Players, a theatre company for adult actors with disabilities; directing a team of improvisers with Down syndrome at Second City Hollywood; and coaching a special needs baseball team.
As Hanney progresses in his career, he is always working to include people with cognitive disabilities into his writing. He currently is workshopping a new play, Coconut, starring Locke & Key’s Coby Bird and American Horror Story’s Jamie Brewer, the first person with Down syndrome to win a Drama Desk Award.
“My ultimate goal is to create and run a half-hour, live-action, neuro-inclusive, musical TV comedy for kids and family,” Hanney said, noting that music has also been a passion since he began playing piano at age 3.
Hanney is also committed to helping the next generation of Notre Dame students find their way in the entertainment business. He serves on the College of Arts and Letters Media and Entertainment Leadership Committee, which launched the annual Notre Dame Film Festival in Los Angeles in 2016, and he is currently teaching a one-credit course he developed for FTT called Writing the Half-Hour TV Comedy Sample, the most practical requirement a writer can have to break into TV.
“I’m really just trying to increase the arsenal of tools that we can arm our undergraduate writers with before they go out into the real world, to complement the theory and critical studies education they receive in FTT,” Hanney said.
“I’m really just trying to increase the arsenal of tools that we can arm our undergraduate writers with before they go out into the real world, to complement the theory and critical studies education they receive in FTT.”