Spielberg, Katzenberg, Geffen ... Who?

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.”

That early indolence is reflected in the way Hahn found her academic path at the University of Massachusetts. “You had to pick your major at orientation weekend in the summer,” she says. “It was very hot, about 100 degrees, and I said, ‘Well, OK, I’ll be an education major. I’ll be a teacher.’ They said, ‘That’s two miles down the road.’ And I said, ‘It’s too hot. I’ll be a math major,’ which was my best subject. They said, ‘That’s two miles down the road.’ So I said, ‘What’s in this part of campus?’ They said, ‘Psychology.’ And that’s how I selected my major.” Still, she didn’t see any reason why scholarship should keep her from enjoying her youth, so she enrolled in a summer college program in Hawaii. There she fell in love with a fellow undergraduate who she thought would sweep her off to her destiny as “wife and mother.”

The student (yes, Hahn insists that personal matters be kept this vague) had other plans. He wanted the two of them to sail around the world. Fine, she said, but marriage first. That impasse ended their relationship, Hahn says. She laughs at the memory, but acknowledges that the disappointment cut deep. Yet that fleeting moment of young love in paradise also taught her something profound, she adds. “I discovered that it was possible to be very happy.” It was not just romance that filled her, but the pace of life out in the lush Oahu countryside, she says. “I would wake up and there would be many things I would plan to do in a day, and if they didn’t get done, they’d get done the next day.” Hahn vowed that forever after, she’d strive to avoid the tedious rut of slaving all year to earn a couple of weeks off.

After returning from her summer in Hawaii, Hahn transferred to Hofstra University in New York. She graduated in 1970 and drove cross-country, settling into Los Angeles and the quintessential “find oneself” world of “temping.” For a year she worked for various companies as a receptionist and secretary, and slowly a vision of a future began to take shape. “You learn a tremendous amount as a receptionist,” Hahn says. “You’re sort of like the woodwork; everybody talks around you.” While they were talking, she was observing. She decided she liked the vibrancy of the entertainment trade. One day, while helping out at Paramount, the temp struck up a conversation with her boss of the moment, Joseph E. Porter III, a Motown lawyer housed there while working on the film “Lady Sings the Blues.”

“Why are you doing this?” Porter asked. “You seem very intelligent to be answering phones.”

‘Well,” Hahn said, “I want to be an executive in the entertainment industry.”

“Do you think you’re going to go from being a receptionist to president?” Porter asked.

“No,” Hahn said, “I know you have to be a vice president first.”

Porter appreciated her joke, Hahn says. He suggested law school, telling her, “It’s a really good way for a woman to get ahead.” On a dare from Porter, and without studying, Hahn took the Law School Admissions Test and scored, she says, above the 90th percentile. “I don’t think of myself as an intellectual,” she says. “I don’t think of myself as extraordinarily articulate. But I have an ability to pick out the essence of a matter.”


Hahn enrolled in Loyola Law School while working again as a receptionist and at other odd jobs. She graduated and passed the bar in 1975, landing her first industry position at ABC, drafting contracts for movies and TV series. As in school, she found she had a talent for harvesting subtleties and cutting through the gibberish of contract work. Her facility for math, for being able to “do numbers in my head,” also helped. But she was frustrated. She preferred to negotiate deals rather than document them. Her boss, however, refused her request to move out of the contracts department. Faced with her first professional obstacle, she left in 1977 and went to Paramount Pictures.


While at ABC, Helene had married. Later, after her career move, the relationship collapsed. Because there were no children and few assets, the divorce was relatively painless, she says. But some say the split scarred her.

“I think in a lot of ways it was tougher than even she knows,” says Porter, her former boss and now a friend. “Although she handled it stoically, I think it hurt her a great deal.” The divorce, he says, may have triggered the drive for which Hahn is now known. Feeling, perhaps, that she had failed in her personal life, he says, she was not about to do so in business; she decided to “buckle down more than she had ever buckled down.” As if famished, Hahn used her time at Paramount to consume every morsel of deal-making experience sent her way, recalls Dick Zimbert, former executive vice president of the studio. Zimbert, characterized by Katzenberg as “the grand master of studio business affairs,” was impressed with the way Hahn had “pulled her life together.” He took it upon himself to teach the former receptionist the movie trade. She impressed him again. Whether she was working on a distribution deal for the film “Saturday Night Fever” or hammering out contracts for “Terms of Endearment,” Hahn had a skill for articulating her position, making it clear to the higher-ups exactly what she thought needed to be done.

She wasn’t intimidated by anyone, and her toughness revealed itself directly and distinctively, he says. “You can be a screamer--Hollywood is full of them--or you can not return phone calls. Helene doesn’t do that,” Zimbert says. “She’s straightforward and says what she has to say.”

That approach built rapport between Hahn and the young Katzenberg, a workaholic who was, by most accounts, more interested in the business side of movie-making than was his immediate boss, the late Don Simpson. Katzenberg says that he and Hahn “worked hand in glove” at Paramount. By 1983, the two had grappled their way up the executive ladder. He became president of motion picture and TV production, reporting to studio president and chief operating officer Michael Eisner. She became senior vice president of business affairs. Already, though, she had set her sights higher. No woman had ever headed the department. Hahn wanted to be the first. When the studio gave the job to someone else, Hahn gave notice. One problem. She still had a year left on her contract with Paramount. Eisner and Katzenberg wouldn’t let her go.

“They forced me to stay but told me they’d make a difference,” she says. The executives kept their word, handing her the reins of some of the studio’s top deals, including those involving hot talent Eddie Murphy. Among the Murphy projects that Hahn handled, one made Hollywood history--but it is hardly considered a high-water mark for Paramount.


In 1983, the studio had optioned a screen treatment written by humorist Art Buchwald about an African king who travels to Washington, D.C. Hahn negotiated contracts with Buchwald and producer Alain Bernheim that based their compensation, in part, on net profits. The studio let the project lapse, but later made a Murphy vehicle titled “Coming to America.” That film’s plot struck Buchwald and others as suspiciously familiar.

The convoluted lawsuit that followed was settled out of court (Hahn was not involved), but insiders continue to scrutinize it. The accounting phase in particular, which focused on Paramount’s dubious definition of net profits, subjected the studio to widespread criticism and, by some accounts, forever changed the way the film industry operates.

In the view of Pierce O’Donnell, attorney for Buchwald and Bernheim and the co-author of a book on the case, “Fatal Subtraction,” DreamWorks is less stingy about profit-sharing as a result of Paramount’s comeuppance.

Hahn says only, “I’m always cognizant of that particular case.”


Before the Buchwald suit, Eisner had left Paramount to become chairman of the Walt Disney Co. He took Katzenberg with him, Katzenberg took Hahn, and together they continued their ascent, driving Disney along ahead of them. When they arrived at the moribund studio, it was the box-office laggard, its profits the lowest of all seven major studios. With the new crew riding herd, Disney rose to No. 1. Hahn, meanwhile, galloped into the sort of pioneering post she’d been denied at Paramount: one of the first female executives at a major studio.

Entertainment attorney Bert Fields, who has represented such players as Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman and George Lucas in Disney deals, gives Hahn considerable credit for the studio’s success. “She and Jeffrey [Katzenberg] were very tough on Disney’s behalf.”

One Hahn tactic was to cut multi-picture deals with promising first-time directors without providing for an escalating pay increase. James Brooks (“Terms of Endearment”) and Robert Redford (“Ordinary People”) were among those to see major success without major raises. Perhaps her shrewdest deal, though, was with Pixar. In 1991, Hahn signed the pioneering computer-animation studio to produce “Toy Story.” According to one source close to the negotiations, Pixar had no experience in the business but great lust to make a movie. Hahn knew this and “jumped in with all guns blazing,” says the source. Pixar’s reward for creating the hit film was less than 20% of the profits. Disney took the rest. (Disney recently renegotiated Pixar’s contract, granting it an equal partner split for future projects).


“Trying to get traction with Helene,” says John Ptak, an agent with Creative Artists Agency, “can be like a trip to the dentist. But I love the fight.”

Such relentless sparring over money--very real money, don’t forget; that determines whether a client lives in Brentwood or San Bernardino, has a future in films or infomercials--can certainly stir up stress. Attorneys’ intestines may churn. Sweat may swamp an agent’s Armani suit. But Helene, by all accounts, keeps cool. She remains “maddeningly cheerful.”

“She doesn’t show any fear at the thought of losing a deal,” says one agent. But when it’s time for the kill, he says, her voice actually rises an octave, and she’ll say something to the effect of, “I’m sorry, but all you have to do is agree with this and we’ll get it over with.”

Says Laurence Mark, producer of the film “Jerry Maguire”: “She never comes on like some sort of juggernaut, you just suddenly realize in the middle of your negotiations that she’s a juggernaut.” Hahn laughs off the idea that she can be a holy terror, dismissing her detractors with a cliche: “If a guy does it, he’s a good negotiator; if a woman does it, she’s a bitch.”

One fact is certain, though--you don’t want to mess with Helene Hahn. Entertainment attorney Barry Hirsch tried it once. He declined to comment on the widely circulated story, but Hahn has no such hesitancy. As she relates the incident, her face brightens. She is animated, pushing back her chair, getting comfortable, clearly relishing the tale.

After negotiating a multimillion-dollar “Captain Eo” video exhibit deal for Walt Disney World, Hahn agreed to a co-director’s fee for Hirsch’s client, Francis Ford Coppola. Hirsch demanded a check, she says, even though Coppola had not yet signed his contract. Hahn had a rule: “You don’t pay until the signature is dry.” But Hirsch pressured her and she gave in, she says. The day Hahn expected the signed contract, Hirsch called with changes to the deal. Hahn made them but was livid. She stormed into Katzenberg’s office and said, “I hate this man, he makes me crazy!”


Hahn told Katzenberg she had a plan for payback spawned by news reports about contaminated produce and dairy products. She smiles as she recounts Katzenberg’s response: “ ‘Oh, that’s hysterical! That’s great! That’s funny! He’ll love it!’

“So we gift-wrapped watermelon and Jalisco cheese and sent it with a note: ‘We can’t go on doing business like this, here’s my peace offering.’ ”

Sources say Hirsch was not amused.


During this period, Disney’s internal affairs had become something of a public soap opera. When Katzenberg split with Disney over Eisner’s refusal to make him second in command, he wanted Hahn to go with him to his new venture, DreamWorks. Eisner had no intention of letting her go. Negotiations got brutal. In the end, Disney cut her loose, but Hahn had to throw her own going-away party. About 100 staffers dropped by to say farewell and drink the champagne picked up by her secretary.

When asked the difference between her current and former studio, Hahn grins and answers in a singsong: “DreamWorks is good; Disney is bad.” Apparently Disney has an equally strong, if opposite, view. One former Disney head, who asked not to be named, says, “She’s not well liked over there.”

For his part, Katzenberg is unequivocal as to why he wanted Hahn with him. “I trust her like my own family. She’s as creative and talented a deal-maker as there is.” So when Katzenberg hit Eisner with a $250-million breach-of-contract suit, Hahn stepped in as his private counsel, acting as liaison to a legal team headed by Bert Fields. Hahn says she read every document and attended depositions, including Eisner’s. While the team chipped away at Eisner, Hahn interpreted the nuances of their exchanges.

“I don’t know if we could have possibly done it without her,” says Fields. The opposition, it seems, would have preferred he do just that and moved, unsuccessfully, to disqualify Hahn. “It was a tribute to her effectiveness,” Fields says. (After 18 months of rancor, the two sides settled the liability phase of the suit, with damages to be settled in the spring.)


Is Hahn still friends with Eisner? She laughs, but her face shows sadness. “No, I don’t think we were ever friends.”

Contrary to what her enemies might say, however, Hahn does have her share of allies in the business. “I think she’s terrific,” says entertainment attorney Skip Brittenham. “Helene knows when to hold ‘em and knows when to fold ‘em. She and I can battle like crazy over a deal and then be laughing at a joke two minutes later. She puts everything in perspective.” Others say that while she demands perfection, she can be forgiving. Remember that poster in her office? One former Disney attorney recalls making a mistake that had the potential to cost the company $2 million. The nervous underling went to Hahn and confessed. Her response, says the attorney, was “s - - - happens, let’s just fix it.”

Another Hahn admirer is keen on pointing out her often-overlooked fairy godmother side. “I think the most important thing to know about Helene is that she’s worked behind the scenes to get women into the industry and promote them,” says Kathy Kendrick, general counsel at DreamWorks. “Both Laura Fox [head of DreamWorks’ feature business] and I knew Helene at Disney. We met when we were just three years out of law school and she brought both of us up through the ranks.” Indeed, 20 of the 26 legal and business affairs attorneys at DreamWorks are women.

Katzenberg, too, talks of his colleague’s soft side. “She’s a kind of den mother. Everybody can go cry on her shoulder. “

Is Katzenberg one of Hahn’s cubs? “You can start with me,” he says.


Hahn lives in a small, ‘30s-era home in the hills above West Hollywood. After hours she works on her tennis game and swims. Friends say she loves to shop. “Helene knows how to enjoy life,” says Rosalie Swedlin, senior vice president of ICM. But Hahn shows her brass at play, too, says Swedlin. In the early ‘80s, the two traveled to Europe together. In Crete they rented a car for sightseeing and wound up lost on a mountainside. Two tires ruptured as they drove the rock-strewn road. They managed to return safely but an employee at the rental desk demanded payment for the tires. “Helene said that was outrageous: ‘You can’t put poor-quality tires on your cars!’ She wrote a letter to the chairman of the rental agency and, sure enough, we got a refund on tires that we completely obliterated because we had driven on this horrible road.”

Even during the most crazed days at Disney, Hahn remembered her pledge to find balance. Monday through Thursday during ski season, she’d commute to her job and put in the endless hours that were de rigueur. By Friday, she was on the slopes of Deer Valley, near her Utah second home.


But Katzenberg had admonished the staff, “If you don’t come to work on Saturdays, don’t bother to come to work on Sunday.” One day he called Hahn into his office. “We don’t work a four-day week,” he said.

“And you know what Jeffrey, neither do I,” Hahn said. “I work a seven-day week. And there’s nothing you can point to that hasn’t gotten done, or that’s ever fallen between the cracks because I’m not here.”

Hahn dug in her negotiation spurs, telling her quasi-Prince Charming, “Unfortunately, I’m at a point in my life where I’m going to do this or I’m not going to work at all.” Then, in a rare display of emotion, she started crying.

Katzenberg reluctantly relented on the work-and-ski issue. “For somebody who is as anal as me, it was a hard notion to deal with,” he says.

To Hahn, though, that seemingly small victory was critical. “Skiing,” she says, “is my Hawaii.”

Not surprisingly, those who have seen her say that when Hahn hits the slopes, she pushes her Volant Super Carvers hard, competing with herself on expert runs. In Los Angeles, she is low-key, avoiding the Hollywood party circuit. But in Utah, she often surrounds herself with a contingent that includes writers, producers and agents. Ironically, the Katzenbergs have also built a home in Deer Valley. “Jeffrey’s daughter laughed at me one day when we were skiing,” says Hahn, who keeps a cell phone stowed in a leg pocket on her ski suit. “She said, ‘your foot’s ringing.’ ”


Agents and attorneys all seem to have stories about cutting deals with Hahn from Los Angeles as she talks on her cell phone from a chair lift. Hahn sees no contradiction there. Hahn knows some women will see a “dreams can come true” quality to her story--not just because of what she’s achieved, but because she hasn’t had to sacrifice a personal life to get it.

“I have no idea what other choices I would have made, but I’ve no regrets at this point for not having made them. I think I’ve worked out a great balance. I see myself as a complete person, made of many things. One of them is what I do for a living, but that’s not who I am.”

“I love my life,” she says and, almost grudgingly, reveals that for two years that has included a romance with a criminal lawyer in Utah. Her only comment on this new Prince Charming: “He skis better than I do.”