Cinespace Owner Wants to Build Huge Backlot for Moviemaking, Offer Tours
NEAR WEST SIDE — Cinespace Chicago, the 50-acre studio that has served as a major filming location for Chicago's burgeoning movie and TV scene, wants to open a huge Hollywood-style backlot that would be the first of its kind outside Los Angeles.
Cinespace President Alex Pissios said he plans to construct buildings or alter facades on existing properties he owns to resemble streets in Paris, New York or even Chinatown, and to include things like libraries or police stations.
The lot would be fenced-in and stretch the length of the film studio’s blocks-long property, which runs from 16th Street to Ogden Avenue and from Washtenaw Avenue to a viaduct a block west of Western Avenue.
Pissios said the backlot would provide an opportunity for those looking to shoot city scenes in those far-off locations but without having to leave Chicago and without the hassle of having to get city permits or worry about parking.
“We’ll just really keep it contained, which is what these productions love, because it saves them money,” said Pissios, 41.
He ultimately sees the backlot — which he’d like to have completed by the fall — as a tourist attraction that could offer tours similar to what's available at Universal Studios.
"These are things that, when I go to Los Angeles and meet with the executives, these are great things that other studios do not have to offer," he said.
The backlot is part of the big plans he has for his company, which was opened by his uncle Nikolaos Mirkopoulos in 2011 with the help of a $5 million grant from the State of Illinois. It has since provided shooting space for TV shows like "Chicago Fire" and "Chicago PD" and films, like "Divergent," starring Kate Winslet and Shailene Woodley.
Gov. Pat Quinn touted the success of the studio at a recent media conference there and pointed to the $358 million brought in by Illinois’ film industry in 2013, with much of that incentive coming from the state’s 30 percent tax credit for film productions that use local crews and talent.
Pissios said building the backlot would complete the vision of his "Uncle Nick," who died in December from cancer-related complications.
"It's already in the works, and it's a vision we're definitely gonna complete, 'cause we owe it to Nick," Pissios said. "'Cause if he were here, he'd get it done."
Pissios said he also wants to build 12 more soundstages — the site already has 18, the largest collection outside of L.A. — and a water tank, which could be used for shooting underwater scenes.
To make the backlot a reality, several residential streets — including parts of 15th Place, and 15th and 16th streets — may have to be closed or rerouted, said Pissios, who’s been working with Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) on the details of such an arrangement.
Ervin said he's on board for the backlot as long as it's coupled with solid resident input.
"I'm excited for what it can bring to the community," Ervin said. "We defnitely are gonna have to have the locations that other film studios have to be competitive in the marketplace."
He said he'd also like that part of his ward to be seen in a better light.
"Historically, people have not neccesarily viewed the West Side in the highest esteem. I'd like people to see the West Side for the beauty that it has."
Resident Gerardo Pinon, who’s resided his whole life on the 2600 block of West 15th Place, said Cinespace has been an asset to the community since it opened.
However, he said the backlot could mean even more parking woes for residents who already receive regular requests from film crews to move their cars.
“When they’re taping, they just take over the street, period,” the 32-year-old resident said. “That leaves us last-minute notice to find parking, and we end up getting tickets.”
Pinon, whose 13-year-old daughter attends St. Ann’s elementary at 2211 W. 18th St., said he’s also concerned about how street closures would affect the school’s bus routes and CTA bus routes.
Earlier this summer, after residents complained of parking troubles, Ervin rezoned the north side of Pinon’s block, at 2600 West 15th Place to permit parking, in addition to the north side of 2700 W. 16th St.
Despite the parking issues, Pinon said he isn’t necessarily opposed to his backyard becoming a tourist destination.
“We’re happy they’re bringing business to the neighborhood,” Pinon said. “They want to construct little Paris over here? Great. Let them do what they do.”