An eviction notice and a fairy Godfather lead to the expansion of Cinespace Film Studios to Chicago. Alex Pissios shares his Cinderella story.
Meet Cinespace Chicago President Alex Pissios
Alex Pissios is a Chicago boy, born and raised. He grew up attending Holy Trinity Church in Chicago. His dad was a special education teacher in the Chicago Public Schools, and his mother was a stay-at-home-mom until he and his siblings went to school. The family traces their Greek roots to Kastoria.
Later, he attended Maine East High School in Park Ridge, IL. Alex intended to follow in his father’s footsteps, and enrolled at Northeastern University, studying English Literature. He began student teaching, but then received a phone call that led to a career change — the first one.
“My Uncle John Mirkopoulos called and said he was opening Elan Furs on Michigan Avenue. He needed someone to run it. I told him I was going to be a teacher. He asked what the starting salary was. I told him $24,000. He said, ‘I’ll pay you $60k. I need someone I can trust.’ So I went for it.”
Alex ran the popular furrier from 1994-2002. In this capacity, he met a plethora of real estate developers, bankers, and the like, which sparked his interest. He began purchasing vacant lots, and then two-flats around the city, starting his own real estate development company.
“2005-2006 was incredible. Then in 2007, the market tanked, and I lost everything.”
A wedding invitation changes the course
Things were so bad, one day Alex found an eviction notice on his front door. Soon after, an invitation came in the mail — his cousin, Angie, from Canada, was getting married.
“I called and told her that times were really rough, and we couldn’t make it. Later, my cousin Jim Mirkopoulos called back, and said to get packed. He was sending a rental car for us to drive to Canada. The next thing I knew, Hertz showed up, and the driver had an envelope with money, to finance the trip.”
Incidentally, Jim runs Cinespace Studios in Toronto.
Alex and his wife Patricia, who grew up in Chicago’s Western Suburbs and attended St. Demetrios Church in Elmhurst, IL, headed to Toronto, not knowing where this fateful trip would lead.
Alex meets his fairy Godfather
Enter an uncle he barely knew — his grandfather’s first cousin — the larger-than-life Nick Mirkopoulos, Cinespace founder.
“He sees me, and we talk. A non-nonsense man, he got right to the point. He knew what happened. He said, ‘Send me a list of what you owe. I want all the loan docs, all the creditors. Don’t leave anything out.’ I sent it. He called two days later, with instructions to pick him up at Midway Airport.”
Nick Mirkopoulos comes to Chicago
They met with a bankruptcy attorney. Alex recalled that, in true Nick-style, he basically told the attorney to take care of it and send him the bill. Nick paid the attorney fees to finish the bankruptcy. But that was just the beginning. Nick had a plan, and Alex was just the man to carry out that plan.
Nick gave Alex an assignment: find a 100,000 square foot building. The two were going to work together on Cinespace’s expansion to Chicago.
Over the next two years, Nick and his brother Steve would come to Chicago to look at buildings. None were right. In the meantime, Alex began setting up meetings with then-Mayor Richard M. Daley, and former Governor Pat Quinn. He was building relationships that would result in grants to aid the expansion. Nick was impressed with his nephew’s tenacity.
“I wasn’t going to let him down after all he had done for me. I kept at it. I wasn’t giving up.”
Landmark deal brings Cinespace to Lawndale
Alex scouted a location formerly occupied by Ryerson Steel, in Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhood.
“Nick was an incredible visionary. He walked a few feet, and said, ‘This is it!’”
Reminiscent of the late Greek mogul Aristotle Onassis, Nick wrote the deal on a napkin, over lunch in Greektown.
“I’d never seen anything like it. He writes the deal, and then sketches the entire plan, with a napkin and a pen. He bought the entire property. Truly, it was one of the greatest real estate deals ever. And I took notes every step of the way. He was really amazing.”
All that relationship-building, brought about a cooperation between the local Teamsters, the city, and the State of Illinois, providing the support to make it come together. Cinespace’s move here was a much-needed boost to the low-income neighborhood, something the men didn’t take lightly. They vowed to give back to the neighborhood, and help it begin a resurgence.
The 80-acre industrial campus was transformed, offering 22 stages and eight production office suites. It’s the largest film studio outside of Hollywood, and it’s growing. Since opening in October 2011, several feature films have been produced there, such as DIVERGENT (2014) and BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016). Among the productions filmed at the studio, are TV shows like Empire, Chicago PD, Chicago Med, and Chicago Fire.
Cinespace Chicago is a full-service production complex, housing vendors such as Keslow Camera, AbleCine, Cinesite, Periscope Post & Audio, and Simon Casting. Additionally, the next generation of filmmakers is in training there, as film schools of DePaul University and Tribeca Flashpoint Academy teach classes on the campus.
Nick passed away in 2013, but true to his Onassis-like persona, he left specific instructions for his nephew. They included expansion plans, as well as details on ways to support the community. Part of this plan was the establishment of the CineCares Foundation, in 2014. The foundation strives to provide opportunities to children and families in the communities that surround Cinespace Chicago, in effort to decrease violence, and provide positive alternatives and opportunities for area residents. They award scholarships for the pursuit of degrees in the arts, in the hopes that these students will “tell stories that reflect and shape our diverse culture.”
“It was very important to my uncle that we keep giving back to the community. We’re continuing his legacy.”
Soon, the entire complex will be fenced to create backlots. Plans include Chinatown, Main Street, London, and New York. Though there’s already event space available for rent (a ballroom and screening rooms), the backlots will create some unique spaces.
“What will happen in this area will be mindboggling. In four years, we’ve created 5,000 jobs and generated $2 billion in revenue for the city and state. We’re just getting started.”
And they lived happily ever after
This story is indeed reminiscent of Cinderella — this time, with a young man who has a great life, but when tragedy strikes, he loses everything. In his darkest hour, he is visited by a fairy Godfather who brings him the chance of a lifetime. Now, as president, Alex is king of this castle.
There’s a unique piece of art hanging in Alex’s office: a framed copy of that eviction notice.
“Before Uncle Nick passed away, he gave me the notice in a frame, and said, ‘Here’s your diploma. Be proud of where you’ve come from and what you’ve accomplished — and never forget.’ God knows where I would be without him. What he did for me, I do for others. And I teach this to my kids.”
Alex’s story reminds us that you never know where the road will lead. Go ahead and wish upon a star. With a little luck, plus hard work and perseverance, dreams do come true.
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