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July 26, 2016

Chi-Town, Show Town

For Dick Wolf’s Second City trinity, Fox’s Empire and some new streaming series, Cinespace Chicago is the place for production.

Paula Hendrickson
  • Jeff Sciortino
  • Jeff Sciortino
  • Jeff Sciortino
  • Jeff Sciortino
  • Jeff Sciortino
  • Jeff Sciortino
  • Jeff Sciortino
  • Jeff Sciortino
  • Jeff Sciortino
  • Jeff Sciortino
  • Jeff Sciortino
  • Jeff Sciortino
  • Jeff Sciortino
  • Jeff Sciortino
  • Jeff Sciortino

To hear Alex Pissios tell it, the economic collapse of 2008 may be responsible for the bustling behemoth now known as Cinespace Chicago.

"I was in the real estate business between 2002 and 2008, developing a lot of residential properties. When the market crashed, I lost everything," says Pissios, CEO of the Illinois-based film production complex.

Fortunately, he comes from a close-knit family, and when disaster struck, an uncle proposed a mutually beneficial solution. That uncle was Nick Mirkopoulos. Back in 1988, he had turned a former iron works factory into one of Canada's largest film studios, Cinespace Toronto,

"He said, 'Why don't you find a small 100,000-square-foot property? You spent a lot of summers here [at Cinespace Toronto]. You know the business. Let's get you back on your feet,'" Pissios recalls.

The property had to be just right — high ceilings, open bays, ample parking, room for expansion — and the search took nearly a year.

When Pissios learned that Ryerson Steel Company planned to shutter its location near Douglas Park in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood, just five miles south of the Loop, he called his uncle. Each of the four main buildings was triple the size his uncle had in mind, but the steel company was willing to sell the buildings separately.

Uncle Nick came to tour the site.

"He was such a visionary," Pissios recalls. "Not 30 feet in, he said, 'This is it.' I said, 'Which one?' He said, 'We're going to buy all of this.' I said, 'But it's a million-and-a-half square feet!' He said, 'We're gonna do it' We did it. And we're still doing it."

Thanks to the family's construction industry experience, all seven buildings on the site were cleared out, fixed up and ready for use in short order. The soundstages were outfitted with heating and air conditioning, important features given Chicago's weather extremes.

"There was no real [entertainment industry] infrastructure here in Chicago," Pissios says, "but we were able to bring in Keslow Camera, Cinelease [lighting], Claire Simon Casting, AbelCine — these companies have moved in here and built the infrastructure, so we have the stages and everything else productions need. We also have Periscope Post & Audio, which the shows can use for postproduction."

And the operation is prepared to address any structural or mechanical issues that might arise, he adds. "I have people on staff to handle electrical, roofing, plumbing — anything. So productions never have to stop. You never want them to stop because of you."

When casts and crews can take a break, there's an on-site restaurant and bar with live entertainment, operated by Lagunitas Brewing Company.

The first series to film at Cinespace Chicago was Starz’z Boss, which set up shop in 2011. Currently, the studio hosts three NBC series from executive producer Dick Wolf - Chicago Fire, Chicago Med and Chicago P.D. - as well as Fox’s hip-hop hit, Empire, and Netflix’s Senses, from executive producers J. Michael Straczynski and Lilly and  Lana Wachowski.

"They're locals," Pissios says proudly of the Wachowski sisters, a Chicago-born writing-producing-directing team. "We also have an Amazon production called Patriots that's going to be shooting here. We're close to full capacity, but with the new construction, we'll probably be able to handle nine or 10 productions at the same time."

Beyond the 22 soundstages already functioning, Pissios hopes to add six or eight more this year. He also plans to fence in the entire campus and build an actual backlot.

"We're going to take some of the buildings here and build facades. One would be Chinatown, one would be New York, another would be London and the fourth one will be Main Street, U.S.A. We're really excited about that."

The campus also boasts something few studios can. "DePaul University is the only school in North America to have a soundstage and classroom on an actual film lot, here at Cinespace. These kids are going to school at DePaul and getting jobs on these shows. So when they graduate, instead of moving to L.A. or New York, they're staying home, which is great."

With even more film and television programs at Northwestern University, Columbia College, Governors State University, Tribeca Flashpoint College and the University of Chicago, the talent pool is growing. That's one reason Cinespace launched Stage 18, an entertainment industry incubator designed to encourage and promote the development of media projects. It's also a good way to ensure future tenants.

Because Cinespace sits amid a mix of industrial and residential neighborhoods, community outreach is important. The Cinecares Foundation runs initiatives focused on non-violence education, and it provides grants and scholarships to local groups and individuals.

"We give scholarships to kids in the area," Pissios says. "We have them maintain B averages, and we have them work in the summertime while they're going to college, so they're giving back to the community."

Results from Stage 18 and the scholarships are yet to be known, but Pissios is already proud of Cinespace's economic impact. "Since opening in 2011, we've created over 5,000 jobs and have generated over $2 billion in revenue. I didn't expect us to be this big in year five," he says.

"We give great service, and the studios see the value in that. We want productions to work flawlessly. They work with big budgets, big stress, and we want to keep them happy. They don't want to hear there's a problem — they want to hear there's a solution, and we do that."

Chicago is a very cinematic city, from its skyline, lakefront and the Magnificent Mile to the L tracks, alleyways and dramatic drawbridges. Yet in the past, its distance from Hollywood soundstages caused many Chicago-set series, like NBC's ER, to film in Los Angeles and settle for occasional location shoots.

"The studios [and networks] love Chicago because it's got beautiful locations and a great workforce," Pissios says. "And now they've got great soundstages less than 10 minutes from Michigan Avenue."

With Cinespace hitting its stride, Pissios understands what his uncle envisioned a few short years ago.

"Let's be honest. Who would have purchased a million-and-a-half square feet of industrial space? Industrial businesses are not moving into the States — they're moving out. This was a perfect fit: to retrofit an old steel mill and make it into one of the largest film studios in North America."

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