NORTH LAWNDALE — Cinespace Chicago is a few steps closer to opening a huge Hollywood-style backlot that would bring tourists to the North Lawndale neighborhood.
Cinespace President Alex Pissios plans to build new streetscapes and offer backlot tours of the 52-acre studio, which runs from 16th Street to Ogden Avenue and from Washtenaw Avenue to a viaduct a block west of Western Avenue. The giant backlot tour would be the first of its kind located outside of Los Angeles, Pissios said.
Since opening in 2011, Cinespace has become a major filming location and is the largest soundstage in the United States outside of Hollywood. Four network shows ("Chicago Fire," "Chicago PD" and "Chicago MD" and "Empire" — the top-rated show on television) are filmed at Cinespace. The films “Transformers,” “Divergent,” and “Jupiter Ascending," have been filmed at the site, too.
A set used to film the hit TV show "Empire" located at Cinespace Film Studios in North Lawndale. [DNAinfo/Stephanie Lulay]
Under current plans, Cinespace will fence in the entire backlot property and build streetscapes that mimic the appearance of New York City, London and Chinatown. The new streetscapes will allow filmmakers to use the sets to shoot city scenes in the locales without leaving Chicago.
“We’ll just really keep it contained, which is what these productions love, because it saves them money,” said Pissios, a former Near West Side developer who grew up in Norwood Park.
Stephanie Lulay says the streetscapes could be big for the city:
In the works for two years, Pissios hopes to have the necessary approvals from the city by November, and begin work to erect a fence around the lot and work on the facades of the property soon after. The Cinespace property is located in the 24th and 28th Wards and both aldermen — Ald. Michael Scott (24th) and Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) — support the project, Pissios said.
As hit TV shows filmed at Cinespace are canceled, Pissios plans to relocate the sets to another soundstage so they could be preserved for the backlot tour.
"Sooner or later, 'Chicago Fire' is going to [be] canceled. 'Empire' is going to be canceled," Pissios said. "There's nothing that the studios want more than for somebody to leave the set up, and we'll take them."
A rendering shows what the Chinatown streetscape could look like on Cinespace's backlot tour. [DNAinfo/Stephanie Lulay]
A rendering shows what the London streetscape could look like on Cinespace's backlot tour. [DNAinfo/Stephanie Lulay]
A rendering shows what the New York City streetscape could look like on Cinespace's backlot tour. [DNAinfo/Stephanie Lulay]
If all goes well, Pissios hopes to launch a 4- to 5-hour Cinespace-sponsored movie tour, that would bring tourists to the backlot and other Chicago sites where iconic movies were filmed. Likely tour stops will include: Dearborn Street in the Loop, where Matthew Broderick sang "Danke Schoen" in the Von Steuben Day Parade in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"; the 95th Street bridge, which the Blues Brothers jumped over in the 1980 film; and a slew of city sites that served as backdrops for movies directed by John Hughes.
The tours would likely pick up Downtown and end "with a beer at Lagunitas," Pissios said. Lagunitas Brewing Company is located on the Cinespace lot.
Left: Cinespace President Alex Pissios Right: Movie trailers set up outside a Cinespace Studios soundstage in North Lawndale [DNAinfo/Stephanie Lulay]
The Cinespace backlot tours — a 15-20 minute trip from the city's museums and lakefront — will be a hit with tourists, Pissios predicts.
"I'm more proud than anything that we'll be bringing people to North Lawndale," he said.
Pissios first announced plans for a backlot tour in January 2014.
The proposed layout for Cinespace's backlot tour. [Cinespace Chicago]
In June, Cinespace announced they would launch an incubator for filmmakers, called Stage 18, later this year. The shared workspace will help connect filmmakers and creatives with the business tools they need to produce their projects, officials said, and offer students a place to develop their ideas. DePaul University, Columbia College Chicago and Tribeca University have pledged their support to the project.
Cinespace Chicago, which opened in 2011 on the site of the former Ryerson Steel plant, currently houses 21 stages. Pissios has plans to add about 10 more stages soon.
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