Alex Pissios is best known in the film industry for turning Chicago into a central hub for movies and TV shows. Where Hollywood once dominated the landscape, it’s becoming more the norm than the exception for filmmakers to look outside the Golden State. Pissios made it very attractive for them to pack up and visit the Windy City.
To make it to this point in his career, though, he had to climb some pretty challenging hills. The way Pissios sees it, his life has been defined by second chances, and he opens up about what they mean to him and why it’s so important to offer them to others.
Early Career and Hitting the Skids
When Alex Pissios started his career, his plan was to be a special education teacher. This was until an uncle offered him a job in the fashion industry at triple his starting salary. He ran a store in Indianapolis for a decade before going into real estate development. Pissios invested largely in the area surrounding the United Center, as it was supposed to be Chicago’s up-and-coming neighborhood. It wasn’t long before the recession changed his plans.
As Pissios put it, “Then ’09 and ’10 hit and it demolished me, put me into bankruptcy, lost everything. [I went to a] really dark place emotionally, definitely suicidal thoughts. I had two kids; my wife just had our third. We’re living in a foreclosed house while my wife went back to be a dental hygienist and it was a real dark time.”
The Promise of a Second Chance
It might have been easy to dismiss Alex Pissios as a ruined man when his back was up against the wall and his only move was to file for bankruptcy. Thankfully, not everyone was so quick to rule him out. His second chance came in the form of another relative, his mother’s uncle, Nick Mirkopoulos, who owned a company called Cinespace in Toronto.
“He was a stern old guy, but he wanted to help, and he did,” Pissios recalls of the man he affectionately dubbed Uncle Nick. “And with his initial $500,000 investment for me to buy one building of Ryerson Steel, I slowly started buying all of it, and we became the largest film studio company in all of North America.”
Mirkopoulos passed away several years ago, but before he did, Pissios had built four stages. By the time he sold it, Pissios brought that number up to 52. Unlike when he built condominiums near the United Center, he had no debt at the time of the sale.
Alex Pissios’ Philanthropic Mission
Cinespace was sold for more than $1 billion, but this is far from Pissios’ most significant accomplishment. “I always tell people what I’m most proud of is the CineCares Foundation,” he confesses. This organization was established in honor of an uncle who never lost his faith in him and designed to give people from an underserved community the chance to be recognized for their talents.
He initially partnered with NBC, and then later Dick Wolf Films, to get high school kids paid internships right after graduation. The Academy Awards eventually got involved. Alex Pissios also managed to improve the caliber of DePaul University’s film program. “They were ranked somewhere in 200th, their film school,” he says. “They partnered with me and we actually built them some soundstages in classrooms. Now they’re a top 20 film school in the country and they have one of the best film programs in the United States.”
When Pissios works with people in the community, he stresses that what he does has nothing to do with a handout. He’s blunt when talking to young people, particularly those who come from difficult backgrounds. “I used to tell them, I don’t want you shooting guns. I want you shooting nail guns. I want to teach you how to build a set, how to paint a set, how to be a gaffer.”
He emphasizes where his hard work led him and why they need to work hard to get to the same level. He also doesn’t mince words regarding their role in the matter. He tells them, “You want to screw it up, that’s OK. It’s your choice then. But don’t ever say then you were not getting a chance.” He’s proud to report that most of the kids not only ran with the opportunity they outworked guys who had been in the union for years.
A New Start, a New Company
With the recent sale of CineSpace, Pissios will be leaving the film world. It’s a big move, but it makes sense for his career. He’s ready to go back to real estate with a new venture called Alecko Capital.
While the company is still coming together, he’s planning to specialize in real estate transactions, including the acquisition of apartment buildings and potentially even lending services. His mission is to be there for young adults having trouble finding their place in the world. He wants to give them a stable environment where they can spread their wings.
“There’s a big need [for help] for kids with special needs after the age of 21; they’re out there, they can’t find jobs,” he says. “Some of them come from very poor families, and they don’t have the money to help give these kids the opportunity to get a job, to have a life and feel like they can do something.”
When children officially become adults, it’s easy for the government or other social programs to forget about them, but Alex Pissios says their needs don’t dry up just because they hit a milestone birthday. It’s important to him that they’re not abandoned when they need help most.
Tying It Together
For Alex Pissios, giving back isn’t something he does because he has the means. It’s not something he does because it will get his name in the paper either. He knows what it’s like to feel as though you’re at the bottom of a hole no one will help you climb out of.
He continues to take a lot of his cues from the man who brought him into Cinespace. When Uncle Nick passed away, Pissios held a wake for him in the studio. He was blown away by the number of stories people told about getting a leg up from Mirkopoulos when they needed it most.
“It was unbelievable to see what this guy did and never said a word,” Pissios marvels. “Nick never gave you anything except opportunity.” It was never about money for Mirkopoulos, and Pissios wants people to be able to say the same for him.
Pissios started with the intention of assisting those with special needs in education, even if he was ultimately tempted away by a more financially stable career. Through the ups and downs of his professional life, he never lost sight of what it meant to help others and allow himself to be helped by others. Today, he might not be employed as a teacher, but he’s still devoted to those core values.
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