Today’s thriving film and television industries in Toronto and Chicago owe a great deal to the impatience of Nikolaos (Nick the Greek) Mirkopoulos.
Trained as an electrician in Greece, Mr. Mirkopoulos had foresight and vision that far exceeded the parameters of his trade. He became an entrepreneur/developer with a particular interest in film production.
Mr. Mirkopoulos was the driving force behind Toronto’s Cinespace Film Studios, the first large-scale movie-production facility in Canada. As soon as his project was completed in 1990, he was on to the next big thing, the development of three further studio complexes in Toronto. He was extremely proud that one of them, Marine Terminal 28, was the location for Chicago, the only film ever shot in Canada to win an Oscar for best picture (2005).
In a serendipitous connection after the Academy Award, the City of Chicago presented another opportunity to expand his burgeoning empire. The collapse of the U.S. real estate market in 2008, encouragement from nephews who lived in Chicago, plus eagerness of the city and Illinois to attract the studio developer responsible for their namesake movie led Mr. Mirkopoulos to undertake another ambitious project. By May, 2011, he had transformed an industrial lot into the largest sound stage for film in the United States (outside of California). Cinespace Chicago quickly became a hub of production that revitalized that city’s film and television industry.
When the 71-year-old died from cancer on Dec. 7, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn issued this statement: “Mr. Mirkopoulos will be remembered for his daring and imagination. Not many business leaders would have seen opportunity in a 50-acre industrial site, but he built it into a film studio that put thousands of people to work and brought new business to Illinois.”
Nick Mirkopoulos was born on Jan. 13, 1942, in the farming village of Kalochori in northern Greece. He was the oldest of five sons born to Theodoros Mirkopoulos, a Greek Orthodox priest, and his wife, Chrysoula. The family was close-knit and hard-working. Nick and his brothers helped their mother with farm work while their busy father attended to the needs of the villagers. Nick and his brothers went to the local three-room village school until Grade 6.
Although he would have liked to continue his education, family circumstances demanded that Nick Mirkopoulos earn a living. He attended a technical school in Leros where he learned the electrical trade. Shortly after getting his diploma, he completed two years of compulsory military service then, at age 18, started his own contracting and electrical business. His timing was excellent as the Greek government was then engaged in bringing electricity to small villages, including his own.
In the mid-1960s Siemens hired Mr. Mirkopoulos to work in Germany, an experience that intensified his hunger for the larger world. Steve Mirkopoulos said of his brother: “He was always the uneasy type and looking for something different. He had a thirst to move on, to do something bigger.”
Canada, it seemed to Nick Mirkopoulos, was the place to be.
He emigrated to Toronto in 1968, leaving behind a repressive political climate – a military coup had just taken place in Greece. He started Torontario Contractors, an institutional contracting business that specialized in renovating and restoring landmark buildings. In letters home he wrote enthusiastically about his new country, persuading two brothers to join him. Once they arrived, he insisted on supporting his youngest brother while he became proficient in English and got a university education. Eventually, all three brothers joined forces in Torontario, developing solid relationships with government officials. Their company restored and repurposed heritage structures across Ontario such as the Tudhope Carriage Factory and the city hall in Orillia.
Where other people saw wasteland, Nick Mirkopoulos saw opportunity. In the 1980s, a low Canadian dollar meant Toronto was an attractive location for U.S. producers to shoot movies, but studio space was small and limited. Mr. Mirkopoulos canvassed people in the film industry, inquiring what was needed in terms of electrical requirements, heating and air conditioning, and sound stages. When he informed his two brothers that they were purchasing an old 250,000-square-foot warehouse on Eastern Avenue and turning it into Cinespace, they thought he was unhinged, but their brother could be persuasive. The idea soon made sense. Studios that had been built from scratch had to charge accordingly, whereas the reconversion of existing space meant that prices could be more competitive.
Cinespace opened in 1990 and became an immediate success. The stocky, 5-foot-10 Nick Mirkopoulos, accompanied by his Jack Russell terrier, could be seen roaming the hallways, frequently talking on two phones at once. When film production slowed, he could call a director such as Francis Ford Coppola (the two men were friends) and urge him to shoot his next movie in Toronto.
Mr. Mirkopoulos was well connected in Hollywood and something of a genius when it came to making things happen, although not all his attempts worked out. A long-standing effort to set up film studios in Greece was a disappointment. Robert Peck, Canadian Ambassador to Greece, wrote via e-mail: “Nick communicated, to put it mildly, his frustration at what he saw as bureaucratic inertia. The minister in charge was not used to such straight talk and evidently not too amused. Nick sensed he might have been a little short on nuance and somewhat apologetically said to me: ‘Ambassador, I am a gladiator, not a diplomat.’”
Movie producer Don Carmody (Chicago), who became friends with Nick Mirkopoulos, called him irrepressible. “Nothing got him down. I never saw him truly angry. He would have these, as I put it, Donald Duck tantrums about various and sundry people he thought had done him wrong, particularly the City of Toronto. He was not a fan of bureaucracy,” Mr. Carmody said.
Composer and U of T professor Christos Hatzis, a close friend, recalled meeting Mr. Mirkopoulos for the first time at a restaurant on the Danforth where the musician was playing cocktail piano. Mr. Hatzis initially thought the Greek entrepreneur, with his unprepossessing clothes and tales of owning studio space, was crazy. “Nick regarded himself as proficient in neither English nor Greek yet he was an amazing storyteller,” Mr. Hatzis recalled.“He was a paradox.”
According to Mr. Hatzis, the two men wouldn’t have become friends without Mr. Mirkopoulos’s persistence. Their relationship solidified when Mr. Mirkopoulos invited his new acquaintance to visit him at Cinespace. “The studio was still working out kinks,” Mr. Hatzis said. “Nick was insanely busy dealing with all kinds of problems when he got a call from elderly Fred Beavis, a retired city councillor, who was having trouble with his washing machine. Nick said he would send one of his technicians but Mr. Beavis insisted that Nick was the only one who could fix it. I went with Nick to Mr. Beavis’s house. It turned out that the washing machine was unplugged, but Nick would never tell him that and embarrass him. Afterward, when we were leaving, Nick said: ‘Never forget the people who helped you on the way up.’ It touched me deeply.”
When it came to helping others, nothing was too much trouble for Mr. Mirkopoulos. During the big blackout of 2003, with several film productions under way, he commandeered his client’s extra generators to ensure that production office staff at Marine Terminal 28 could continue working. His nephew Jim Mirkopoulos, who now runs the Toronto Cinespace, said the experience must have reminded his uncle of being a young electrician newly arrived in Toronto. “He was pulling cables all over the building, cigarette hanging out of his mouth and a big smile on his face,” he recalls. “There wasn’t a person I know of that Nick would turn away if they were in need.”
Charities in the vicinity of both Cinespaces received financial assistance from Nick Mirkopoulos, students were never charged for space, and free accommodation in a building he owned was available to friends in need of support. The list of hospitals and university scholarships sponsored by him is a lengthy one.
Although he had a couple of long-term girlfriends, Mr. Mirkopoulos was too restless and preoccupied with work to settle down. He owned several antique cars that were used in movies; yet, his own cars tended to be either beaters or rentals.
Material displays of wealth and the trappings of society held no interest for him. He did, however, possess an inordinate amount of charisma and an ability to connect with people in order to get things done. As Mr. Hatzis observed: “He had a magic about him.”