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The Accidental Movie Mogul

The Hollywood-size saga of how Alex Pissios made Chicago a TV and film capital

Above:The Cinespace Chicago president in front of the Molly’s Pub set from Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. (see “Behind the Bar: Molly’s Pub”)

Alex Pissios had already received a red eviction notice on his house in Hawthorn Woods when his luck finally turned. It’s a story he’s polished until it gleams like a rhinestone. A developer of residential properties on the North and West Sides, he’d been taken down by the real estate crash of the ’00s; when the final tally came, he would owe creditors $13 million. He was 35, his career was finished, and his old associates had written him off. His wife had gone back to work as a dental hygienist, and Pissios spent his days changing diapers and driving the kids to school.

Then, in June 2008, a cousin in Toronto prompted him to reply to a family wedding invitation and, hearing of his financial woes, sprang for a rental car so Pissios and his wife could attend. At the reception, Pissios was approached by his grandfather’s cousin Nick Mirkopoulos. “Uncle” Nick had emigrated from Greece to Toronto in 1968 and started an electrician business with his brothers; in 1990, after many years as a successful contractor and then developer, he’d founded Cinespace Film Studios, a giant film production complex in Canada. “When he saw me at the wedding, he kind of jabbed me,” recalls Pissios. “He’d say, ‘How’s the real estate business? Making a lot of money?’ ”

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Eventually, Mirkopoulos explained that he’d heard about Pissios’s troubles and asked him to send copies of his loan documents. “I’m driving home with my wife,” Pissios remembers, “and she was like, ‘What the hell you got to lose?’ So here I am sending this guy my loan documents, and he calls me up and says in his big, thick Greek accent, ‘Alex, I got your stuff. You’re fucked, man.’ ”

Mirkopoulos had more: He was coming to town to straighten things out. He asked Pissios to pick him up at Midway. From there, he had his “nephew” drive him to a bankruptcy attorney’s office, where he put up $25,000 to cover Pissios’s filing.

He also gave his demoralized nephew an assignment: Cinespace wanted a footprint in the United States and needed someone in Chicago to scout a 100,000-square-foot building to house three sound stages. The two men had coffee at the old-school Greek Islands restaurant on South Halsted Street in Greektown. “He put his hands on my shoulders and said, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ And I started bawling,” Pissios recalls. “Nobody had told me that for three years. In my mind, it was just going to get worse.”

 
Pissios’s “uncle” Nick Mirkopoulos, who bankrolled Cinespace Chicago and looms large at the studio; the eviction notice placed on Pissios’s house, back when he owed $13 million to creditors.
Pissios’s “uncle” Nick Mirkopoulos, who bankrolled Cinespace Chicago and looms large at the studio; the eviction notice placed on Pissios’s house, back when he owed $13 million to creditors. Photos: (Mirkopoulos) Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune; (eviction notice) Michael Zajakowski

Pissios can see the future right in front of him. The bearish 46-year-old stands just inside the main entrance of Cinespace Chicago Film Studios in the Douglas Park neighborhood of North Lawndale. He points out the buildings on the east side of Rockwell Street, the studio’s main drag, whose exteriors he plans to convert into blocklong street sets. “This is gonna be Main Street, USA.” He turns and looks toward Cinespace’s northernmost building, at the corner of Ogden Avenue. “That over there, when you first walk in, is gonna be London. And then around this corner” — he points east, along 16th Street — “is gonna be Chinatown, and then the other one’ll be New York.”

Pissios, now president of the studio he helped Mirkopoulos start here, has been talking about these sets for years, but only in mid-2019 did he win the city permits to close off 15th and 16th Streets and turn his collection of industrial and office buildings into a real fenced-in studio lot. The street closures brought some 75 irate residents to a meeting with aldermen, city officials, and Cinespace representatives, but Pissios is undeterred. He thinks he can start constructing the elaborate façades indoors this winter and have them mounted to the building exteriors by summer, at a cost of no more than $2 million. “I’m doing it — it’s done!”

Eleven years after his uncle saved him and eight years after the studio’s founding, Cinespace Chicago has grown into one of the largest film production rental facilities in the world, with 31 sound stages in Douglas Park and another three just opened in Little Village. Divergent was shot at Cinespace, and so were Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and two Transformers movies (Dark of the Moon and Age of Extinction). Spike Lee came to Cinespace to shoot Chi-Raq, as did the folks behind the well-regarded Obama romance Southside With You. But the studio’s bread and butter has been series television — primarily Fox’s Empire, which alone rents seven sound stages, and NBC’s franchise of Dick Wolf first-responder dramas (Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., Chicago Med).

If Pissios erects the building façades he has in mind, turning Lawndale into London, the feat will be in keeping with a man whose own life has been transformed. “I didn’t shower for a month,” he recalls of his low point during the real estate crash. “That took years off my life. When you go down, man, it’s bad.”

It’s hard to imagine what Pissios would smell like after a month without bathing, but then, he lives in a world of shining hyperbole. If he seems larger than life, that’s mainly because he lives to enlarge. Pissios grew up in suburban Morton Grove and earned a degree in English literature from Northeastern Illinois University, but he comes on like an avuncular crime boss from a TV movie. He doesn’t smoke, but when he speaks, you can hear him waving a cigar.

Family ties coil like grapevines through Pissios’s story — the story of how Chicago came to be a major TV and film capital. His father, Spiros, was born in Slimnitsa, a village in northern Greece, at the end of World War II. During the ensuing civil war, while Spiros’s father was serving in the National Army, communist guerrillas backed by the Soviet Union rounded up Spiros, his mother, and his maternal grandparents and deported them to Albania and later Hungary. Spiros was 7 when, following the death of Stalin, he and his mother were repatriated to Greece and then struck out for Chicago, to which his father had immigrated during their captivity. The boy grew up working weekends at the Alps, his father’s restaurant near Lincoln Square.

Uninterested in restaurant life, Spiros earned a teaching degree at Northeastern Illinois University and spent most of his career as a special education instructor at Northside Learning Center High School in Hollywood Park. During a trip to Greece, he met Olympia Mirkopoulos, married her, and eventually brought her to Chicago, where she gave birth to Alex in 1972 and later to his brothers, Dean and Nick. Asked to describe his parents’ relationship, Pissios quotes a line from My Big Fat Greek Wedding about the father being the head of the household but the mother being the neck. “The love that she brought up me and my two brothers with was incredible,” he says, sitting in his Cinespace office. “My ma comes here and brings lunch and feeds the whole floor, you know. She’s that kind of woman.”

They all lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Norwood Park before moving to Morton Grove, where Spiros continued the family tradition of busting ass. “My dad worked as a teacher from Monday to Friday, and Saturdays he always had another job,” Pissios recalls. “Sometimes it was working in Mr. K’s Restaurant on Harlem as a manager or at Casa Royale Banquets. It was real important to him that my ma raised the kids. So the work ethic I got is definitely from him — he worked like I can’t even believe it.” Spiros was the sort to buy his son modest sneakers and tell him that if he wanted the latest Nikes, he could earn the extra money himself.

The most outgoing of the brothers, Alex planned to follow his father into teaching and even worked part time as a caregiver for a special-needs student. But when his uncle, John Mirkopoulos, offered him $75,000 a year in 1994 to sell fur coats on the Magnificent Mile, it was too much to pass up. “I can always go back and teach,” Pissios told his concerned father. “If it goes bad, it goes bad.”

He put in seven-day weeks at Elan Furs. “I’d open that store at 9 a.m., and I closed that store at 9 p.m. We were even open New Year’s, Thanksgiving, Christmas.” The coats ranged from $500 to $150,000, and his clients ran the gamut. He sold furs to Aretha Franklin and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, to doctors and lawyers and gangsters. “You get the East Lake Shore Drive money, where these guys come in and spend $100,000 on a coat. And then you have the husband and wife — he is a teacher, they saved $20 a week for 30 years, and they’re coming in and he buys her a coat for $20,000 and they’re bawling.”

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Living downtown as a bachelor, Pissios felt he was too busy to get involved with anyone romantically, and he resisted when his mother, who worked at House of Brides in Norridge, began trying to set him up with Patricia Apostolopoulos, a niece of the store’s seamstress. His mother showed him a photo, and he said he’d think about it. “Then my ma gets on me for about two months. ‘Did you call her? Did you call her?’ ” When he and Patricia finally spoke on the phone, they hit it off, and after dating for a few years, they married in 2002.

That same year, Pissios quit the fur store to concentrate on his burgeoning real estate career. In the course of selling furs to them, he’d become acquainted with quite a few developers in town and decided to get into the game himself. He bought a lot in Bucktown, hired a contractor to build a two-story home, sold it, and made $100,000 on the deal. Encouraged, Pissios bought and sold apartment buildings on the West Side and developed a project of 28 townhouses in Galewood, near his family’s church, Holy Trinity Hellenic Orthodox. But the potential jackpot, he thought, lay around the United Center, an area that was just beginning to be developed at the time. “I drove up and down the streets every day, 20 times a day,” he recalls. Looking for possible sellers, he knocked on doors and stopped to chat with people watering their lawns.

At that point, the profligate lending that would feed the real estate crash was in full swing: Pissios could easily land loans by putting down just 10 percent. “It was quite a time,” he says. “It wasn’t just me — the whole banking industry got greedy too.” His Waterloo turned out to be a two-block stretch of parking just north of the arena, between Damen Avenue and Warren Boulevard. Pissios and his partner, Edward Gobbo, hired an architectural firm to design a giant condominium development, negotiated a $5.8 million loan, and put down $500,000 on the property, nonrefundable. “I was going to open up a sports bar called Big Al’s right across from the United Center,” Pissios recalls. “I always wanted to have a little place to hang out.”

Then the bank, suddenly skittish, called them back in and canceled the loan. Needing an extension on the purchase, the partners gave the seller another $200,000, also nonrefundable, and began approaching other lenders. But in late 2005, when that didn’t pan out, they lost their entire stake. The value of his other properties began to tank as the market started to turn, and once Pissios depleted his interest reserves — an account that services loans during construction — his debt began to mount. Lacking the money for a bankruptcy filing, he agreed to manage some of his properties himself, working as a landlord and collecting rents to try to keep his lenders at bay.

Get Pissios talking about his financial collapse, and he seems to spiral downward all over again, informing you with every rotation that it was bad, bad, bad. “How many times I cried holding my kids,” he says. “A hundred times, thousands of times.” Loan collectors were hounding him. Incoming numbers would keep flashing on the family’s TV screen, all with similar prefixes. “My dad’s like, ‘Who keeps calling you from 877?’ ‘I don’t know — telemarketers?’ ”

After finding out the couple were in danger of losing their home, Pissios’s father-in-law took him aside and offered to put up his own deed to help. “Now here’s a guy with a little house in Bloomingdale, worked his whole life behind a kitchen,” says Pissios. “I’m like, ‘Dad, I love you so much right now. If the house was worth $13 million, I might take you up.’ ”

Enter Nick Mirkopoulos and his two lifelines: covering the bankruptcy fee and hiring his nephew to scout a property for Cinespace. After his visit, Pissios contacted Rich Moskal, who was then the director of the Chicago Film Office, and the two drove around for a few days looking at sites. The studio needed something with 25-to-35-foot ceilings and large open spaces so trucks and motor homes could navigate inside. It had to be close to downtown, where the actors and other talent liked to stay. Another critical factor was the neighborhood. “Community’s important — you gotta find someone that wants you there,” Pissios remembers Mirkopoulos saying. “This is gonna create a lot of foot traffic, it’s gonna be a lot of cars driving around. It’s gonna be a great economic driver, but you gotta hope that the neighborhood or the people around there want that.”

Pissios spent two years scouting facilities, including an old Campbell Soup plant in Douglas Park, before Platinum Equity, which had bought Ryerson, decided to sell off one of the metals distributor’s warehouses at Rockwell and Ogden. Mirkopoulos liked the building and the fact that other company properties nearby might also come up for sale. And North Lawndale needed a shot in the arm. Martin Luther King Jr. had lived in the impoverished neighborhood for much of 1966 to call attention to housing discrimination, and after he was assassinated in 1968, a long stretch of it went up in flames. The name North Lawndale soon became synonymous with urban decay. When Cinespace scouted the first spot, there were prostitutes soliciting nearby on Western Avenue.

Teamsters Local 727 president John Coli Sr. and lobbyist Frank Cortese helped the studio secure a $5 million state grant for that first building, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Cinespace put up $40 million, though a last-minute snag almost sank the deal. The day before the closing, Pissios says, his attorney notified him that he was $400,000 short, a gap between the state grant and what Mirkopoulos had provided. “I don’t have two cents in my pocket,” Pissios recalls thinking. He phoned Mirkopoulos, who was in Greece at the time. “I said, ‘Nick, we’re $400,000 light.’ He goes, ‘That’s your fucking problem. You want the building? Go find the money.’ Click.”

Pissios hit up a friend for a loan, getting on his knees to beg. “Next morning, $400,000 in a cashier’s check. Nick calls me. ‘Did you close?’ I go, ‘Yeah, I closed. I found it.’ He goes, ‘I knew you would. Congratulations.’ Click.”

 

Chicago has a checkered history as a city where movies get made. During the 1980s and early ’90s, it had been a shooting location hot spot, but the business dried up as other states began offering handsome tax incentives to production companies. Toronto, Vancouver, New Orleans, and Albuquerque emerged as filming destinations. The biggest moviemaking facility here, Chicago Studio City, founded in 1979 in the Austin neighborhood, had only five sound stages. Pissios says that when he first flew to Hollywood, “the studio heads told me, ‘Everything [in Chicago] is a rip-off.’ ” Producers were urged to use particular vendors. “ ‘Everyone knows somebody,’ they’d say. ‘I know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy,’ and all of a sudden, your cable wire is disappearing.” In the ultimate indignity, Rob Marshall chose to shoot his 2002 Oscar winner Chicago not in Chicago but at one of Mirkopoulos’s sound stage complexes in Toronto.

In 2008, Illinois finally established a 30 percent tax incentive on production costs and salaries up to $100,000, which is what drew Mirkopoulos to Chicago. Rich Moskal, who worked at the Chicago Film Office from 1996 until his retirement last year, remembers three sound stage proposals prior to Cinespace’s arrival, but they were all turned down because they had “no skin in the game.” By contrast, he says, “Cinespace came in with what was, right from the get-go, very serious intent — and money. And a reputation of having worked with the industry from Toronto, very successfully courting and doing business with studios and networks and producers.”

Mirkopoulos quickly showed he could put those connections to use, negotiating with Paramount to get much of the third installment of Transformers shot at Cinespace Chicago. His relationship with Lionsgate Television helped him land the studio its first big ongoing project in 2011 — Starz’s Boss, in which Kelsey Grammer played the mayor of Chicago — and the next year brought season 1 of Chicago Fire.

With another $1 million state grant, Cinespace bought a second Ryerson warehouse directly south of the first. Additional purchases backed by $12 million in state grants gave the studio ownership of a third warehouse to the south; a steel-and-glass office building west of Rockwell that houses both the studio staff and the various production companies that operate onsite; two buildings with commercial space that Cinespace leases to camera businesses and other vendors; and a building south of the studio lot but accessible from 17th Street that Cinespace rents to Lagunitas Brewing Company because the noise and shaking from nearby freight train traffic made it unsuitable as a sound stage.

But the facilities and tax incentives were only part of the equation. To lure production companies, a city must offer a reliable pool of camera operators, grips, gaffers, carpenters, and electricians, as well as vendors that cater to the industry. To that end, Mirkopoulos early on offered a year’s free rent to such national operations as Keslow Camera and Cinelease, which rents lighting and grip equipment. Cinespace has since offered similar enticements to AbelCine, which provides training on the latest digital camera systems; 321 Fast Draw, a whiteboard animation studio; and two postproduction companies, Bam Studios and Periscope Post & Audio.

Even the studio’s community service projects are geared toward growing the film infrastructure here. In 2014, Pissios established the CineCares Foundation, and two years later he brought in Sheila Brown, a native of the Austin neighborhood with a long career in TV sports production and event planning, as its executive director. Her idea for an internship program that recruited within North Lawndale excited Pissios. “The workspace was not emulating the neighborhood, and you could see that,” he says. “Everyone’s cousins, uncles — everyone’s Irish, Italian, Greek. This is a black neighborhood, a Hispanic neighborhood.” Since its founding, the program has put 33 young people from the West Side through a 24-week program in which they work as crew members on TV series. Sixty percent of them, says Brown, are hired by production companies at Cinespace or otherwise find work in the local film industry.

Along with growing the crew base, the studio has invested substantially in nurturing creative talent. In 2013, when DePaul University approached Cinespace about leasing sound stages for its School of Cinematic Arts, Mirkopoulos urged Pissios to offer generous terms, knowing that a film school on the lot would enhance the studio’s reputation. For DePaul, which now occupies three sound stages, the relationship has paid off: Soon after cutting the deal, it landed on the Hollywood Reporter’s list of the nation’s 25 best film schools (at No. 21, later rising to No. 13). A graduate of the school, Angie Gaffney, runs Cinespace’s film incubator program, Stage 18 Chicago, which offers indie filmmakers inexpensive office space and a steeply discounted rate of $350 a day on its sound stage. Gaffney presents networking events and master classes aimed at teaching program members the financing skills that film programs tend to overlook. The investor group Chicago Media Angels, whose offices are at Stage 18, has sunk $2 million into new productions. No one can say Cinespace lacks for energy.

 
Pissios speaking with Mayor Rahm Emanuel during a press conference in February; with Christian Bale at a charity event at Cinespace in May
Pissios speaking with Mayor Rahm Emanuel during a press conference in February; with Christian Bale at a charity event at Cinespace in May Photos: (Emanuel) Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune; (Bale) Karolyn Raphael

When Pissios sits at his desk in his long, wood-paneled office, a giant black-and-white photo of his uncle smiles at him from the opposite wall. Framed sports jerseys (Mike Ditka, Anthony Rizzo, Denis Savard) and movie memorabilia (a portrait of actor Paul Sorvino, a poster for Rocky II) lean along the floor, unhung, and on the desk sits a Hasidic Jew doll that dances and sings “Hava Nagila” for the amusement of his Jewish guests. On the credenza behind him, along with community awards, photos of family and friends, and an autographed headshot of Demi Moore, is the framed eviction notice from the house in Hawthorn Woods, which Mirkopoulos ordered him to keep as a reminder. (Pissios’s office has been used for the fire commissioner’s in Chicago Fire and the New York attorney general’s in Empire.)

Cinespace Chicago had been open only two years when Mirkopoulos died, but he still looms large. His vision guided the business through the early years, and he schooled his nephew carefully. “He took me down to the bone,” Pissios says. “I’ve never been in the army, but that’s what I hear: They strip you down and put you back to your bare butt.” His uncle admonished him for his low-collateral investments; a smart businessman, he explained, puts down at least 60 percent to have some leverage with the bank. Mirkopoulos urged Pissios to maintain a good relationship with the state film office, his state representative, and the governor: “If they get rid of your film tax credit, there is no film industry.” He also knew the key to any politician is his or her constituents. “You really want to be strong?” he’d ask. “Have the neighbors be your partners.”

“Alex’s relationship with Uncle Nick was very demanding,” says Dean Pissios, who, along with youngest brother Nick, is now part of the Cinespace management team. “You earned every second with him. And I think, ’cause he saw that Alex never gave up, he had a lot of respect for my brother.” Mirkopoulos would fly in from Toronto for a month or two and leave the brothers with what Dean describes as “a book” of tasks to accomplish. The next time he’d come back, he’d expect results. “With Uncle Nick, work was work,” says Dean. “He could blast you and yell at you for three, four hours out of the day, and then he’d be like, ‘All right, let’s go to Greektown and eat.’ You’re like, ‘I wanna kill you right now.’ But he could turn it off.”

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Says Pissios: “Nick was the type of guy, work hard, but go smell the air. Go take two weeks off, go to Greece. He was very philosophical. That was the Greek in him.” He drove a Toyota Corolla and might wear the same shirt with a mustard stain four days in a row, but he once hired Cirque du Soleil to perform at an orphanage in Greece. “I wrote that check — that was a stupid number,” says Pissios. “But he would do it like nothing.” Pissios tries to emulate his uncle’s unpretentious style. He drives a dented Chevy Impala and claims that Rahm Emanuel once chided him for showing up to a meeting in his standard sandals, shorts, and loose-fitting leisure shirt. “I am who I am,” he says. “When I put on those damn sports coats, I hate it.”

Mirkopoulos was a heavy smoker — four packs a day, according to Pissios. Once, he remembers, they were monitoring construction of a set for NBC’s short-lived series The Playboy Club when a woman approached Mirkopoulos and insisted he put out his cigarette. “Nick looks at her, inhales the thing, like a cartoon” — Pissios mimes a growing column of ash — “and blows the smoke right in her face. He says, ‘Do me a favor. Go and buy your own fucking buildings and don’t smoke in them.’ ” The next day, says Pissios, the woman returned. A longtime makeup artist, she’d learned who Mirkopoulos was, thanked him for trying to save the city’s film business, and told him he could smoke anytime he wanted.

When Mirkopoulos was dying of cancer in Kalohori, the village in northern Greece where he was born and to which he’d returned to live out his final days, he divulged to Pissios that the last-minute snafu over the purchase of the first Cinespace Chicago building had actually been a test he’d orchestrated. Had Pissios failed to come up with the shortfall, Mirkopoulos would not have bought any more buildings. “To my mind, I was going to help you on the one and I was done,” Pissios recalls his uncle telling him. “But a guy who goes bankrupt, loses everything, and can find $400,000 in less than 24 hours is a guy we’re going to do business together.”

His uncle also explained his extraordinary generosity toward him when he was at his low point. During the Greek civil war, Mirkopoulos’s father, a Greek Orthodox priest, had been detained by the communists, and Pissios’s maternal grandfather had dropped out of school to help care for young Nick and his four brothers. In covering Pissios’s bankruptcy costs, Mirkopoulos had repaid a 60-year-old debt.

 
Civic Box Office chart
Photos: (Chicago Fire) Elizabeth Morris/NBC; (Empire) Chuck Hodes/Fox

After Mirkopoulos’s death in December 2013, his contribution to the city’s film industry was hailed in the press, but since then the media narrative around Cinespace Chicago has grown less flattering. On March 24, 2015, the Sun-Times reported that Bruce Rauner, the Republican governor who had come into office preaching austerity and would soon try, unsuccessfully, to suspend the film tax credit, was demanding that Cinespace return the $10 million grant that his Democratic predecessor, Pat Quinn, had awarded it in the waning days of his administration to buy a number of local properties, which the studio never did. Cinespace returned the money the following day. A week later, Pissios defended the grant in Crain’s Chicago Business, saying that he’d twice met with Christine Dudley, the new director of the Illinois Film Office, and notified her that the sales of most of the original properties on the grant application had fallen through for one reason or another. The studio would have had to return the money that June if it hadn’t been spent.

Two months after that story broke, Chicago Studio City sued the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and the Illinois Film Office’s former director Betsy Steinberg (now a consultant to Cinespace’s Stage 18), alleging that Steinberg had conspired to steer projects to Cinespace. A U.S. district judge tossed the lawsuit last year, noting Cinespace’s advantages over Studio City: 25 times as much rental space, plus air conditioning, interior-scene docks for unloading large trailers, and an open vendor policy (Studio City requires that its clients rent equipment from it).

In July 2017, Cinespace landed in the headlines again when a grand jury indicted Teamster boss Coli on charges that he’d extorted $100,000 from Cinespace since 2016 by threatening work stoppages on productions. According to the indictment, quarterly payments of $25,000 began under Mirkopoulos and continued under Pissios. Coli’s indictment revealed a twist that might have come out of a TV show from the lot: In 2016, Pissios agreed to wear a wire so that the FBI could record Coli discussing a payoff with him. The Sun-Times, not citing sources, reported that Pissios cut a deal with the feds to avoid a charge of bankruptcy fraud for not disclosing a loan Uncle Nick had given him to open the studio. (Pissios wouldn’t comment on this in detail other than to say, “I never did bankruptcy fraud, nor was I ever charged with it.“)

When Coli pleaded guilty this past July to receiving a prohibited payment as a union officer and filing a false income tax return, his agreement described an October 2016 meeting at Cinespace. There, Pissios, coached by the feds, told Coli he couldn’t pay anymore because his chief financial officer, Mark Degnen, had discovered the missing money. “We’ll close [Cinespace],” Coli responded in the FBI transcript quoted in the agreement. “We’ll shut it down tomorrow. We’ll shut it down within an hour. … I will fucking have a picket line up here and everything will stop.” Coli leaned on Pissios to “get rid of” Degnen, explaining, “There’s gonna be, time-to-time, unique things that are gonna come up that you’re gonna have to deal with. … You can’t have a fucking rat in a wood pile. You can’t have a whistleblower here.” The following month, Pissios called Coli to inform him that he’d communicated the strike threat to Degnen, who had backed down. “Perfect,” replied Coli.

In April 2017, Pissios delivered a final $25,000 payment to Coli at the studio. Coli was arrested later that day. His plea agreement calls for a three-year prison sentence, but if he follows through on an agreement to cooperate with the feds as they investigate further, the sentence could be cut in half.

Pissios won’t talk about any of this: “My attorney told me I can’t discuss it until after it’s over. Because it’s still not over. And that’s an agreement with the federal government. It’s not worth it to me to piss these guys, to piss anybody, off. When those guys tell you, ‘Don’t talk,’ you don’t talk.”

Even with that sordid affair largely ended, Pissios has remained in the news. In July 2018, the Sun-Times reported that since he’d cut his deal with the feds, Cinespace had spent $3.8 million snapping up properties on the West Side, primarily the Crown Steel plant on 31st, where the Little Village campus is being built, as well as parking lots near the North Lawndale studio — a chronic need for Cinespace clients — and a handful of apartment buildings between Ogden and Rockwell to be used as shooting locations. “I own a lot more property than that story says,” he tells me. “I was going to send a letter saying, ‘You’re off a few million.’ ”

Strip away the glamour of the entertainment industry, and Pissios is still in the same business he was in before the bankruptcy. Cinespace is, at its core, a real estate company, leasing office and boutique warehouse space, with the three brothers as landlords. And like most landlords, they get calls from tenants with problems. “Customer service is everything,” Pissios explains. “If a leak comes through the roof and it’s hitting the set while they’re filming, they gotta stop shooting. If they stop shooting, it’s costing thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of dollars an hour. That’s your problem, not theirs. So you are troubleshooting constantly. And this is a big facility, and these are old buildings.” Did working as a developer prepare him for this role? “Definitely — being in real estate, understanding value. It’s just, I ended up buying at the super-high when I lost everything, and then the way this ended up, we were buying at the super-low.”

This summer Pissios realized a long-held dream of his uncle’s by fencing off the Cinespace lot from the surrounding neighborhood. Being enclosed makes Cinespace feel more like a bigtime studio. But there were practical reasons, too: Some of the production companies were interested in using the streets for shooting, and Pissios wanted to create a buffer from the traffic, especially cars screaming down Rockwell. Also, he’d grown increasingly anxious about pedestrians passing by the sound stage buildings: “Anyone could just walk on the corner of 16th, and there’s Terrence Howard, and bam, you don’t know what the heck, throw an egg at him. All of a sudden I’m like, Well, this is crazy. All it takes is one guy to whip a knife at somebody. Then the talent’s gonna say, ‘I ain’t goin’ to Chicago.’ ”

After consulting with security people at Universal Pictures in California, he contended with miles of red tape to get the necessary parts of 15th and 16th Streets closed. Because buses needed to be rerouted, he had to work with the CTA. Because of ambulance traffic, he needed approval from nearby Mount Sinai Hospital. Because the city removed its streetlights once the roads were closed to outside traffic, the studio needed to install its own. “It took me three years to do this,” Pissios proudly proclaims. “The Cubs can’t get the streets [around Wrigley Field] closed. Ryerson Steel, which was a $5 billion-a-year company, couldn’t get it done. I know they tried for years.”

Rich Moskal says he supported the street closures: “Given the volume of activity that was going on there from trucks pulling in and out while other live traffic was going through, it was making more and more sense over time.” Angry pushback came mostly from people living in a pocket of homes west of Cinespace and south of Mount Sinai. To walk east toward Western Avenue (where there’s a Metra stop for trains heading into the Loop), they must now go around the lot, swinging either farther north, through a forbidding blocklong viaduct beneath train tracks on Ogden, or farther south, through a viaduct on 21st Street that serves as a homeless encampment.

Pissios brushes off the complaints, acknowledging the inconvenience to those residents but citing the studio’s larger record of community involvement. Most members of its core staff of 25 — primarily security and maintenance workers — come from North Lawndale. Cinespace recently pledged more than $2.3 million to Sinai Health System for “the area of greatest need,” according to a press release, to be paid by 2022, and when permit parking was established on streets near the lot, Pissios offered to pick up the first two years of costs for neighbors.

But in the end, Cinespace’s social outreach matters less than its political clout, won the old-fashioned way in this town, with lots of zeros. In the studio’s first five years, economic activity from Chicago film and TV production more than doubled, from $600 million a year to $1.3 billion. NBC alone employed 1,300 people on its local productions in 2016, paying more than $150 million in wages, and then there’s the patronage of local businesses, everything from equipment vendors to truck drivers to caterers. “It’s been a game-changer in many, many ways,” says Moskal.

With this spike in revenue has come the embrace of Democratic heavyweights: Over the years, Rahm Emanuel, Pat Quinn, and J.B. Pritzker have all visited Cinespace for press conferences, touting the studio’s importance to the local economy. This past spring, Pissios had a giant sign with Cinespace’s name erected just outside the main gate, arching over Rockwell. “I love when I pull in and see it,” he says.

 
Pissios
This spring, Pissios had a giant sign with Cinespace’s name erected just outside the main gate, arching over Rockwell Street. “I love when I pull in and see it,” he says.

In September, two months after Coli’s guilty plea, I join Pissios for an early dinner at Greek Islands. He beckons me to a quiet table not far from the entrance. “This booth has a lot of sentimental value because this is where I sat with my uncle five nights a week for dinner,” he tells me. “This is the booth that after we left the bankruptcy attorney, we came here. I still come here maybe two or three times a week.”

Production at Cinespace is in full swing, and the satellite studio in Little Village is open for business, with Empire as its first client. The building façades that will turn whole blocks into New York, London, Chinatown, and Main Street, USA, are being redesigned by engineers to better withstand the fierce winters in Chicago. And after eight years of providing space to producers, Pissios is finally venturing into his own film development with Chicago Stories, a production company he founded with Betsy Steinberg, former Tribune Media president Larry Wert, and veteran producer Robert Teitel (Soul Food, Southside With You, The Hate U Give). For the company’s first release, the principals are discussing a documentary on the beloved rock station the Loop, which shut down in 2018.

Pissios orders for us in Greek, the language he grew up speaking at home. Naturally he gets the saganaki, which the waiter sets ablaze with an “Opa!” I turn down a slice. “You don’t know what you’re missing, my friend,” the waiter insists as Pissios digs in. We talk about the studio’s biggest construction project yet: Ogden Commons, a joint venture with Mount Sinai Hospital and the Habitat Company, a developer. The multiphase plan calls for a three-acre complex on the north side of Ogden Avenue that would eventually include retail, 100,000 square feet of office space, and 300 units of public, affordable, and market-rate housing. The project is scheduled to break ground in January.

I ask Pissios if the situation he inherited with his uncle’s death has changed his understanding of the man. “We can’t talk about it,” he reminds me. “But what’s in the papers is not how it went down. The Coli situation was a much bigger thing than me and Nick — much, much larger. Much!” The question sends him back to his last conversation with Mirkopoulos. The idea of running the studio without him terrified Pissios. “He knew I was scared,” he recalls. “He was in Greece, in the bed, he was dying. And his exact last words were, ‘You’re gonna be OK.’ I said, ‘You gotta get back here, man.’ ” Then he hung up.

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