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.