NEW FINDINGS: North DeKalb Mall is so empty, it’s become a hot spot for filming

May 2, 2019 Decatur - A crew works on obvious movie set at an empty mall at North DeKalb Mall in Decatur on Thursday, May 2, 2019. North DeKalb is getting a new life as a site for film productions, turning vacant storefronts into fictional sets. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

To longtime Atlanta residents, the decline of North DeKalb Mall can seem like the plot of a tragic movie.

But as more stores leave the shopping center, it has found a cinematic way to cash in on all that empty space.

Like other metro malls, North DeKalb has fallen victim to changing retail tastes as many tenants left behind dark storefronts. But now the struggling mall has become a hot filming location — a blank canvas where vacant stores temporarily set the scene as fictional businesses, county officials said.

According to the DeKalb Entertainment Commission, seven movies and TV shows have filmed at the mall over the last year, the latest of which transformed the space just last week.

“It’s such a large space and it has a lot of open space in it, with some of the storefronts being empty,” said Shelbia Jackson, executive director of the DeKalb Entertainment Commission. “The productions like to have that. … They can have the space all to themselves.”

» READ MORE: RL Stine’s ‘Fear Street’ turning North DeKalb Mall into a 1990’s era mall with Musicland, B. Dalton, Gadzooks

Thirty of the mall’s 74 stores are vacant, making up about half of the former retail behemoth’s 622,300 square feet, according to a March 2019 report compiled by its owner, Sterling Organization.

This fictional business might make its way into the new movie "Fear Street." (Chris Hunt Photography)

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Months after a massive redevelopment plan fell through, the film industry has breathed new life into the mall and provided serious revenue.

North DeKalb’s popularity as a retail destination has declined since its heyday in the 1970s and 80s, with stores and restaurants slowly departing. Macy’s closed there in 2016, and the mall is now anchored by an AMC theater, Burlington and Marshalls.

The mall, which opened in 1965, also has a large, sparsely populated parking lot that can serve as an ideal spot for storing equipment and trailers. Its location at the interchange between North Druid Hills Road, U.S. 29 (Lawrenceville Highway) and U.S. 78 also allows for large truck access from several directions.

READ MORE: No Costco as North DeKalb Mall demolition plan is nixed

This fake bookstore was stocked with real books for the filming at North DeKalb, Hunt said. (Chris Hunt Photography)

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From Atlanta to Shadyside

The mall was close to being demolished after Sterling Organization announced last April they wanted to tear it down and build a huge development, including a Costco, more retail and restaurants, as well as housing and a hotel. However, that dream was abandoned after the developer and DeKalb County could not agree on a plan due to budget constraints, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last December. A property manager for the mall did not respond to requests for comment.

While the mall is not full, Jackson said the mall’s owners were surprised by the money the property is now making as a malleable film set.

Just last week, a production believed to be an adaptation of the R.L. Stine book series “Fear Street” transformed several vacant North DeKalb Mall stores and outdoor signage into a fictional mall.

“Frankly, it was a little hard to tell what were the faux storefronts, the legitimate business and the defunct vacant ones,” said local photographer Chris Hunt, who lives near the mall.

Jackson would not say what is currently filming at the mall, but Hunt said staff told him it was the R.L. Stine adaptation. He saw several defunct stores turned into temporary businesses used for filming, including “The Tick Tock Tavern” and “B Dalton Bookseller.” Outside, crews installed fake mall signage on top of the former Macy’s entrance.

Fox is producing a three-film adaptation of the “Fear Street” young adult horror fiction book series, according to several media reports. Gillian Jacobs from the Netflix comedy “Love” is set to star in the films, the first of which reportedly is set in 1994 in the town of Shadyside, Ohio.

Hunt said it was hard to tell which businesses in North DeKalb Mall were real and which were built for the movie set. (Chris Hunt Photography)

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DeKalb on the big screen

Over the past year, movies and shows including “Cobra Kai,” “The Mule” starring Clint Eastwood, “MacGyver” and “Zombieland 2” have also shot at North DeKalb Mall, said Jackson, whose office manages the film permitting process in the county and helps productions find shooting locations.

As Georgia has grown into one of the nation’s top locations for filming — thanks largely to its generous film tax credit — DeKalb is also on the rise as a destination. Jackson easily listed about a dozen movies, TV shows and commercials that are currently filming in the county. DeKalb is also home to three production studios: Blackhall, Third Rail and Eagle Rock studios.

The entertainment industry in DeKalb had an economic impact worth $1.98 billion in 2016, the commission said.

Productions also shoot at Northlake Mall, which also has some vacant stores, Jackson said. Otherwise, the DeKalb County Police Department’s south precinct and Arabia Mountain are popular areas for shooting, she said.

“We have a lot going on right now,” she said.

The county also gets money from the productions when they apply for film permits, totaling $300,000 since October 2017.

Elsewhere in metro Atlanta, Gwinnett Place Mall has also turned its vacant shops into 80s-era movie sets, transforming into Starcourt Mall for the hit Netflix series “Stranger Things” last year.

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