How a Greek immigrant family built a booming Hollywood film studio in downtown Chicago
Sometimes failure can lead to unexpected business success. That was the impetus that led to the founding of Cinespace Film Studios in Chicago, a facility owned and operated by an immigrant Greek family that has helped turn around a depressed neighborhood in the Windy City.
The story began in 2007 when Alex Pissios — a real estate developer — was in a bad place. The portfolio of homes and apartment buildings he had acquired throughout Chicago was suddenly worth nothing, thanks to the real estate implosion that helped usher in the financial crisis. With a wife, four young children and $11 million in debt, Pissios was facing bankruptcy and an eviction from his home.
“I was pretty much suicidal,” he says matter-of-factly of that dark time in his life. Against such odds, he barely noticed the wedding invitation that arrived in the mail. A cousin in Canada was getting married, and Pissios and his family were invited. He didn’t have the money to travel, but another cousin insisted he attend. “I told my wife, ‘Let’s just go and get out of here for a while,'” he recalls.
They say that in every life, there is a turning point, a juncture where the old ends and a new path begins. For Pissios it was his cousin’s wedding. There, he struck up a conversation with Nick Mirkopoulos, an uncle he barely knew, but the man who would set his life on a course he could have never foreseen. Together they started Cinespace Film Studios in Chicago.
Nearly 20 years earlier, Mirkopoulos had started Cinespace Film Studios in Toronto, now a major studio with four locations in the city. It is known for filming many hit TV series and films, including “Chicago,” which won an Oscar for best picture, and “Handmaid’s Tale,” a Hulu series that won a 2018 Golden Globe nomination for best actress. At this point, Mirkopoulos was looking to replicate that success in the United States.
Today, Cinespace Chicago is the biggest independent movie studio outside of Hollywood. The 70-acre film campus opened for business in 2011 and is located on the site formerly occupied by the Ryerson Steel plant in Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhood. This full-service studio offers 30 soundstages, production offices and more than a dozen on-lot businesses, including lighting, camera, animation, casting and post-production companies.
Cinespace is also the engine that helped put Chicago back on the map for film and TV makers after a more than 20-year absence. As a result of his uncle Nick’s vision, Pissios claims Cinespace has helped create 7,500 film-related jobs since it opened and has contributed millions of dollars to the local economy. In fact, according to the Illinois Film Office, the state’s film industry generated nearly $500 million in spending last year, a 51 percent increase over 2015. Much of that spending has taken place at Cinespace.
Two years ago it launched an incubator for filmmakers called Stage 18 to provide workspace, programming and event space to help develop the local filmmaking community. Its goal is to keep local talent from leaving for opportunities in Los Angeles and New York City. Stage 18 also organizes events such as script feedback for budding filmmakers, plus the opportunity to pitch projects to investors.
Attracting Hollywood moguls
The studio captured the attention of Hollywood movie makers and network executives from its earliest days. A big reason was Mirkopoulos’ sterling reputation. He ran Cinespace Toronto as a client-focused studio, making sure productions had what they needed at all times. But perhaps the bigger draw was the Chicago facility’s size. With the explosive growth in digital platforms, the competition for studio space was becoming fierce, and Cinespace Chicago answered that need.
“We’ve become the Midwest extension of Hollywood,” explains Steve Mirkopoulos, who took over as president and CEO of Cinespace Toronto when his brother Nick died in 2013. “With all the increased volume coming from players like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, they need large facilities like ours that operate in places with competitive tax rates.” Indeed, the state of Illinois offers filmmakers a 30 percent tax credit on money spent on state goods and services, including the salaries paid to state residents. This provides enough of an incentive to draw more production to Chicago, while helping local businesses in the film industry grow.
Cinespace is now home to producer Dick Wolf’s successful “Chicago” franchise — Chicago Med, Chicago Fire and Chicago PD all film here — as well as TV shows Empire and Shameless, and productions from Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. And since the sprawling complex launched, several feature films have been produced here, including Divergent and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Though the Chicago and Toronto Cinespace studios are run separately, there’s no question that this is a family business with deep roots. Several generations are now actively involved, and Mirkopoulos’ wish before he died was that more would follow. For instance, Pissios’ two brothers, Nick and Dean, are operations managers in Chicago. In Toronto, Steve has two of his adult children working in the business, as does another brother, Larry. One of his sons, Jim, is vice president of operations, and another, Mike, is head of construction.
Of course, operating the studio as a family business creates its own challenges. Pissios says those are kept to a minimum with a strong dose of honesty, respect and clear lines of command. “There always has to be a general, someone in charge,” he says. “When Nick was alive, it was him. Now it’s Steve.”
To keep things running smoothly, the company has an advisory council and established a management structure where responsibilities are clearly stated for each family member involved. The entire family has monthly management meetings and gets together to create a strategic plan each year. “There is mutual respect, and everyone is hardworking,” says Steve. “We talk everything through and resolve any issues as they arise.”
A family empire begins
Oddly enough, the family’s start in the film business was never planned. Mirkopoulos and his brothers arrived in Toronto from Greece in the late 1960s. Nick was an electrician and a decade later joined forces with his brothers to buy and repurpose old commercial and industrial buildings. In the mid-1980s — while Toronto’s film industry was still in its infancy — Nick saw an opportunity to convert some of these old buildings to film studios. The Canadian government, recognizing the economic benefit of attracting more filmmakers to the country, began offering tax incentives to folks willing to film here. In 1988, Cinespace Toronto opened.
Miles Dale is a TV and movie producer who filmed the first RoboCop television show at Cinespace Toronto in the early 1990s and recalls the brothers’ positive attitude: “I needed lots of space to shoot the series, but I didn’t have a lot of money back then,” he says. None of that mattered to Nick. “He said, ‘OK, let’s do it. I want to know you and be in business with you. We’ll figure it out,'” Dale recalls. “That’s the way that family is. They’re always going to find a way to make things work.”
Pissios can certainly attest to that. In 2007, after his uncle Nick wrote a $25,000 check to cover the cost of his bankruptcy filing, he told him to start scouring Chicago for commercial buildings or old industrial plants that could be renovated or repurposed as a film studio. For two years Pissios met with local politicians to help secure the financial grants that eventually would make Cinespace Chicago a reality. Once he found out about the shuttered 1.5-million-square-foot Ryerson Steel plant, located eight minutes from downtown, he presented the opportunity to his uncle who then arranged the financing and funded the renovation.
Tell Pissios that his story sounds like a movie-of-the-week script and he doesn’t disagree. “I know it’s crazy,” he says in a booming voice. “When I think about what my uncle Nick did for me and for the city of Chicago, it’s almost surreal.”
Bringing Hollywood to Chicago
Getting filmmakers and the networks to shoot their shows in Chicago could have been an uphill battle if not for Mirkopoulos’ solid reputation. He and Pissios went to Los Angeles and convinced executives to come back to the city where hits such as The Blues Brothers and 16 Candles were shot in the 1980s. “We met with everyone — the networks, the unions, and told them that if they came back to Chicago, they’d have Nick on their side to handle any problems,” Pissios says. “They knew what he had done in Toronto, and they came.”
Brian O’Leary is senior vice president and tax counsel for NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC. As part of his job, he helps production units decide where to shoot their shows. When Dick Wolf was creating Chicago Fire, the Illinois and Chicago film offices told NBC executives about Cinespace. The tax incentives offered by the state, along with Cinespace’s campus, sealed the deal, he recalls. “Their facility is enormous, and they are in constant communication with their customers rather than making decisions in a vacuum,” O’Leary says. “That gives them an advantage.”
Carla Corwin, a producer on Chicago Med, says filming in the city where a show is taking place “adds to the flavor of the whole production. Our extras are local people, and the scenes are just more authentic.” And with digital platforms churning out multi-episode series, Pissios says Cinespace is busier than ever. “Young people binge-watch, so there’s demand for more and more shows,” he notes.
When his uncle was nearing the end of his life, Pissios was able to spend a lot of time with him. They discussed how to expand Cinespace and ways to give back to the community. That’s why in addition to the film-related business on the campus, nearby DePaul University has space for classes that teach filmmaking to the next generation of artists. A year after his death, the company also created the CineCares Foundation. It provides Chicago residents with education and job training in TV and film.
Looking ahead, Pissios says his dream is to create a back lot on Cinespace’s property where building façades can be made to look like New York City brownstones or cities like London and Paris. It would be the only back lot outside of Los Angeles, and he says it would save filmmakers time and money by eliminating the need to shoot on location.
In the meantime, Pissios never loses sight of one of the biggest lessons he learned from his uncle. “He always told me to do things from my heart,” he says. “Nick was a very stern and smart businessman. He didn’t give handouts; he gave people opportunities. If he believed in you, he gave you a chance, always.”
In his office, Pissios keeps a framed copy of his eviction notice, a gift from Uncle Nick. “He wanted me to remember where I came from, and I do,” he points out. “Every day, I come to work with a smile on my face, and I try to find ways to pay this forward.”