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Spielberg, Katzenberg, Geffen ... Who?

Helene Hahn Started as a Studio Temp; Now She Is DreamWorks' Top Attorney. It's a Cinderella Tale--but Don't Mention Disney.

September 27, 1998|IDELLE DAVIDSON | Idelle Davidson is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

An anxious screenwriter pitching "The Helene Hahn Story" might be tempted to blurt, "classic Cinderella." And there is that: Twenty-eight years ago, Hahn sat at a receptionist's desk, screening calls and filing papers. Now, as DreamWorks SKG's top deal-maker, she has her own corner office, and the calls that get past her secretary determine whether people ride through this town in glass coaches or pumpkins.

In truth, though, Hahn's tale is probably too idiosyncratic for modern moviedom. For one thing, it's hard to imagine DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg as Prince Charming, a role he did play in her career. Then there's the critical matter of her own character development. Half the agents and entertainment attorneys in Hollywood have had dealings with Hahn, and she can come across as a benevolent fairy godmother or very wicked stepmother, depending on perspective.

At first glance, Hahn doesn't seem like someone whose no-holds-barred negotiating can make executives whimper. Dressed in a soft green pantsuit, doe eyes peering below dark bangs, she hardly looks like the person the notoriously cutthroat Katzenberg counts on as his fierce protector. She is tiny. Her glass desk is large enough to swallow her. But if Hahn were just a sweet waif, it's unlikely she could have helped Katzenberg slap a sleepy Walt Disney Co. into shape, or that Katzenberg and his fellow DreamWorks founders, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, would have made her their first hire at the new company.

As everyone with a television knows, the glamour side of the young studio is handled by the high-profile dream team--animation and television staffs report to Katzenberg, movie execs report to Spielberg and music heads to Geffen. But all legal, business and administrative honchos report to Hahn, the lead deal-maker. While DreamWorks got off to a slow start--four of its five

TV series flopped, and films such as "Amistad" disappointed at the box office--recent releases, including "Mouse Hunt" and Paramount joint ventures "Deep Impact" and the blockbuster "Saving Private Ryan," have given the company new momentum. That makes the former receptionist one of the most powerful behind-the-scenes women in the industry.

Such an inspiring scramble up the power pyramid is certainly the stuff of movieland fable. But what may be even more remarkable is how successful this tough semi-Cinderella has been in taking charge of her plot line, apparently managing to create a Hollywood life in which happiness is not defined solely by points earned and deals done.


Hahn and Katzenberg's offices sit side by side off a cheerful waiting area filled with flowers, plants and bright Depression-era posters. "Admitting mistakes gets you higher respect," reads the poster behind Hahn's chair. "Excuses miss the mark." The studio has not yet committed to a permanent site, so for now these quarters within Amblin Entertainment in Universal City are home. Spielberg is generally off on location and Geffen works from Geffen Records in Beverly Hills, Hahn says. "Jeffrey," she adds, "usually comes barging in here every two seconds."

Actually, except for the harried secretaries outside the executives' doors, the studio has a surprisingly relaxed feel. There's hardly a dress or a necktie in sight. A scruffy DreamWorks cat, Zorro, roams as if he owns the place. But Hahn is not relaxed this afternoon. She clutches the pearls around her neck. She takes a sip of water and pushes a strand of hair from her face. "I don't trust reporters," she says, eyeing the tape recorder on her desk as if it were a rattler about to strike. Only when the DreamWorks chef sends in a lunch of goat cheese, raspberry salad and steaming turkey breast with fresh yams does she slowly grow calmer and begin to open up about a life that hardly seemed destined for the executive suite.

"I wasn't planning to have a career," Hahn says, finally letting go of the pearls. Then she leans back in her leather chair, puts her fingertips together like a steeple, and tells her story, beginning with her birth 50 years ago as Helene Burlakoff.

She grew up in Westbury, N.Y., the youngest of three siblings. Her father was an attorney and her mother didn't work outside their home. Helene was smart, earning A's at Clarke High School. But she lacked motivation. "I had an affinity for doing well in school without a tremendous amount of effort."

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