Alex Pissios Puts Chicago Cinema in the Spotlight — Chicago Biz News
Alex Pissios and his uncle Nick Mirkopoulos created Cinespace Chicago Film Studios in 2011, successfully making Chicago the “Hollywood of the Midwest.” Mirkopoulos and Pissios purchased 60 acres of the former Ryerson Steel site in North Lawndale and transformed it into the world’s largest independent film studio outside Los Angeles. Over 40 major television and film productions have been shot at the 70-acre complex.
Alex Pissios’ ‘Overnight Success Story’
This “overnight success story” began decades ago as a story born of struggle and failure. Pissios’ father worked as a special education teacher and Alex Pissios planned on following in his father’s footsteps. Pissios attended Northeastern Illinois University where he majored in special education and minored in secondary education. When someone “made him an offer he couldn’t refuse” in 1994, he’d just gotten his foot on the first rung of the professional ladder as a student teacher.
John Mirkopoulos, Pissios’ maternal uncle, ran a leather and fur company in Indianapolis and wanted to expand to Chicago. He needed someone he could trust, like a family member, to handle his new Michigan Avenue location. Pissios’ knee-jerk reaction was one of skepticism. “First and foremost, I don’t even like fur; I’m not into leathers,” he informed his uncle, hesitant to give up teaching. Pissios changed his mind after Uncle John responded with a number that more than quadrupled his teaching compensation.
Pissios Surrounded by Leather and Fur in Chicago
Alex Pissios subsequently worked in the fur and leather industry for the following decade, putting in 12-hour days, seven days a week. Times were changing, though, and with them, new opportunities arose. With a desire to take on new challenges and escape the exhausting routine he’d been in, he decided to pursue real estate development. At the time, real estate was big.
Pissios met local developers and decided to enter the fray. He bought land in Bucktown, built a house on it, and sold it for $100,000. Following that success, Pissios eagerly delved into a bigger project and developed 28 townhouses in Galewood, next to his family’s church, Holy Trinity Hellenic. With a philanthropic mindset, he hoped to bring quality housing to the area. The most significant opportunity at the time was in the newly developing United Center. “I drove up and down the streets 20 times a day,” Pissios says. He walked door to door, stopping to chat with locals watering their lawns. He wanted to understand the area and what it had to offer. Moving forward was straightforward. Because of the economic climate in Chicago and the nation, Pissios could secure loans with only 10% down. He recalls, “It was quite an era. Everyone was eager to lend money.”
Alex’s fortune changed, though, along with thousands of other real estate developers. Pissios’ debt swiftly spiraled out of control when the real estate crisis struck. In the crash, Pissios lost everything and owed creditors $13 million. He was just 35 years old, his real estate career had come to an end, and his so-called friends had deserted him. Pissios spent his days changing diapers and driving the kids to school while his wife returned to work as a dental hygienist. He managed some of his properties himself, collecting rent to keep his creditors at bay because he didn’t even have enough money to file for bankruptcy. Things were looking grim.
Alex Pissios says, ‘I Do’ at a Wedding
Pissios was about to receive an astounding stroke of good luck. Nick Mirkopoulos, Pissios’ grandfather’s cousin, arrived on the scene. Here’s what happened.
In June 2008, Alex Pissios received a wedding invitation from a relative in Toronto. When the cousin learned Pissios and his wife were financially strapped, he volunteered to pay for a rental car so they could attend.
Alex Pissios gladly caught up with distant relatives during the wedding celebration and reception, many he hadn’t seen in years. His casual banter with Nick Mirkopoulos, a first cousin, twice removed, would, as it turned out, change the course of his life.
“He kind of teased me a little when we spoke at the wedding reception,” Pissios recounts. “He obviously had been apprised of my situation. ‘How’s the real estate business?’ he asked. ‘Are you making a lot of money?’”
As it turns out, Nick Mirkopoulos wasn’t just asking out of curiosity. The man Pissios called Uncle Nick was born in Greece and moved to Toronto in 1968. Mirkopoulos was a successful real estate developer and builder, having founded Cinespace Film Studios, a vast film production facility in Canada, in 1990. Mirkopoulos explained he’d learned about Pissios’ issues and wanted to do what he could to assist him. Cinespace required a 100,000-square-foot facility in Chicago to house three soundstages, so he handed his despondent nephew an opportunity. He’d not only help with Alex Pissios’ debts, he’d fund a studio in the Chicago market with Pissios in control. Pissios eagerly accepted the help and the challenge. After all, it was a chance to pursue his own philanthropic goals while helping build up Chicago’s arts scene.
A Bigger Challenge in Chicago
In a profession where image is everything, convincing Hollywood to visit Chicago wasn’t simple. Even before the ink on their first contract had dried, Pissios and Mirkopoulos traveled to the West Coast to reassure film executives that they’d receive a lot of bang for their buck, cutting-edge facilities, and the complete cooperation of Chicago’s frequently fractious entertainment unions for their projects. It was a promise they kept then and they continue to keep to this day.
Over the years, Cinespace has hosted many high-profile film and television projects, including movies The Dark Knight, Superman v Batman, Transformers, and Divergent, and the Dick Wolf small screen trinity of Chicago P.D., Chicago Med, and Chicago Fire. (A particular favorite of Pissios’ was the short-lived Starz drama Boss, starring Kelsey Grammer as a besieged Chicago mayor.) Pissios was able to turn a $500,000 investment into a billion-dollar monster thanks to Mirkopoulos’ continued backing, and Cinespace became one of the most prominent film studio corporations in North America. In the studio’s first five years, financial activity from Chicago’s film and TV production more than doubled, from $600 million to $1.3 billion.
Cinespace Chicago has been responsible for creating more than 20,000 jobs since its inception. The membership of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees has increased from only a few hundred to thousands. Local productions have gone from one or two per year to as many as a dozen projects filming at the same time on any given day.Thanks to Pissios, Cinespace is one of the biggest success stories in Chicago. There are now 36 soundstages in the complex. Cinespace Chicago Film Studios is known as the “Hollywood of the Midwest” since it revitalized a depressed neighborhood and created tens of thousands of jobs. Alex Pissios’ leadership at Cinespace Chicago resulted in billions of dollars in revenue for the city of Chicago.
Alex Pissios is most proud of making an impact in local philanthropic efforts such as helping those with special needs. This was instilled in him from an early age by his father, Spiros Pissios, who dedicated his life to special education.
Originally published at https://chicagobiznews.com on April 27, 2022.