How Alex Pissios Went From Bankrupt to Cinespace Chicago Developer in Three Years

Life was not looking good for Alex Pissios as the century’s first decade drew to a close. As someone who made his living developing properties on the North Side and West Side of Chicago, Alex Pissios found his finances and his life crumbling after the real estate crash late in the decade. At age 35, he owed creditors more than $13 million and no longer felt welcomed by his old colleagues. 

“I didn’t shower for a month. That took years off my life,” Alex Pissios told Chicago magazine. “When you go down, man, it’s bad.”

The fallout from the real estate market meant his wife had to return to work as a dental hygienist while he took care of their children at home. A wedding invitation from a cousin in Toronto in June 2008 would be the beginning of Act 2 for Alex Pissios. Hearing that Pissios and his wife were short of cash, the cousin offered to cover the cost of a rental car so the couple could attend. 

How a Wedding Reception Sparked a New Film Career 

The wedding reception gave Alex Pissios the chance to speak with distant family members, many of whom he had not seen in several years. As it turned out, his friendly bantering with Nick Mirkopoulos, a first cousin twice removed, would change the trajectory of his life.

“When he saw me at the wedding, he kind of jabbed me,” says Pissios. “He’d say, ‘How’s the real estate business? Making a lot of money?’ ”

The man Pissios had always referred to as Uncle Nick grew up in Greece and immigrated to Toronto in 1968. For the next 22 years, Mirkopoulos and his brothers operated a successful electric company in Ontario’s most populous city. Mirkopoulos decided to forge a new and separate path in 1990 when he founded and launched Cinespace Film Studios, one of the largest film production complexes in Canada. Mirkopoulos heard about Pissios’ woes in the real estate industry and wanted to help in his own unique way.

‘Uncle Nick’ Asks To See Loan Documents

Before Alex Pissios and his wife left Toronto to return to Chicago, Mirkopoulos told him to send copies of his loan documents once he got home. He obliged, and received a phone call a short time later. With his heavy Greek accent and tendency to rib people, Mirkopoulos let Pissios know that the loan documents confirmed he had no future in real estate. He said he was going to fly to Chicago to help Pissios, and asked his cousin’s grandson to pick him up at Midway Airport. 

Upon finding Mirkopoulos at the airport, Pissios followed the older man’s instructions to drive him to the closest bankruptcy office. The two men walked in together, and Nick Mirkopoulos put down $25,000 on the spot to cover the cost of the filing. Although Alex Pissios felt humiliated, his caring relative put his hands on his shoulders and told him everything was going to be alright. Pissios recalled many years later that hearing that statement caused him to sob, because no one had told him that in the previous three years. He saw his real estate dreams crumble with no hope that things would improve.

An Opportunity Alex Pissios Never Saw Coming  

While Mirkopoulos saw a relative in need and wanted to help, he also had an ulterior motive. He was prepared to expand Cinespace into the United States and felt Chicago would make an excellent location. His assignment for Pissios was to locate a 100,000-square-foot building that could accommodate at least three soundstages. They discussed the plan over coffee at a Greek restaurant on South Halsted Street.

Cinespace Chicago Film Studios Opens in Douglas Park

Since securing the ideal location for Cinespace’s United States location in the former Ryerson Steel complex in 2011, Alex Pissios has grown it into one of the world’s largest film production facilities. Cinespace Chicago — where hits like “Fargo”, “Empire”,  and “The Nanny” have all filmed — has 31 soundstages at the original location in the North Lawndale neighborhood and an additional three soundstages in the Little Village neighborhood. 

Alex Pissios has big goals in mind for transforming the complexes with building facades of London and New York City. He makes easy comparisons between the building facades and the transformation of his own life after he reached his lowest point in 2008. Chicago owes him a debt of gratitude for grabbing the opportunity life handed him with both hands and making the city a major film and television capital of the world.

Pissios with his parents Spiros and Olympia Pissios. (Kristan Lieb/Chicago Tribune)

Alex Pissios: Then and Now

Alexander Pissios was born in Chicago to first-generation Greek immigrants. He’s spent his life living and working in the city he loves. He earned his bachelor’s degree in English literature from Northern Illinois University. While a student at the university, he grew close to and mentored a young man with autism. Alex Pissios briefly considered going into the field of special education, as his father did. However, he would eventually decide to pursue real estate and began his career as a developer in 2003.

Just five years after he started working as a real estate developer, the recession and real estate bust of the late 2000s ended his career and left him bankrupt. Despite his own troubles, he always maintained the desire to improve Chicago’s most impoverished neighborhoods. He’d never forgotten what it felt like to be millions of dollars in debt, and he pledged that he’d commit his time and personal resources to the effort once he got back on his feet. Alex Pissios has made good on that promise and then some.

Along with his brothers Dean and Nick Pissios, Pissios created The CineCares Foundation in honor and memory of Nick Mirkopoulos, the man he called Uncle Nick. The goal of the program is to empower low-income Chicago residents with the opportunity to receive free or reduced education in television and film. The foundation operates the Mirkopoulos Apprenticeship Program that joins forces with community organizations to teach youth and young adults the skills they need to work on productions at the Cinespace Chicago campus. Alex Pissios has received several awards for his philanthropy in Chicago from individuals and nonprofits in appreciation of how he is giving others opportunities he so graciously received himself almost 15 years ago.

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