Summer months can be tricky for a movie fan.
Who wants to be cooped up inside when the great outdoors beckons?
The thing is, movie-watching habits are a bit like Terminators. They don’t understand remorse or pity. Nor do they get the concept of “It’s sunny, you fool, go outside and frolic in nature!”
Here’s where a backyard movie theater comes into play. You get to watch a movie AND be outside AND hang out with friends.
Now, let’s take a moment to pause before you think “Yeah, right like I’m going to make a cinema in my yard.” Trust me, you can do it. You can win the summer by hosting a killer outdoor movie night.
Before you start to quiver at the thought of parting with vast amounts of cash — fear not. This guide is intended to make sure you can get a decent backyard movie theater up and running in the space of a week (that’s to count for ordering bits and pieces online and running to the store to assemble a simply *killer* array of snacks) for under $300.
I know. Excellent!
Setting up a movie theater in your backyard might seem like a feat no-one but the finest DIY craftsmen can achieve. Sure, the skills (and by that, I also mean badass ‘tache) of Ron Swanson would be cool, but they’re not necessary.
All you need is a little planning, a bit of savvy budgeting and you’re set to conquer your outdoor theater. This here guide breaks that down into three stages to make it even easier.
- Figuring out equipment and setup. This section goes into detail on each piece of equipment you need, from screens, projectors, media players to audio systems.
- Creating phenomenal outdoor movie night ambiance + choosing the perfect movie. Make the night totally rule by dressing up the yard, and make sure you pick a good movie.
- Housekeeping. Yes, housekeeping. The nuts and bolts of making your night go off without a hitch, and to ensure you don’t break the law.
I know, I *am* very nice.
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1. Figure out your equipment and setup
Watching a movie outside is a very different proposition to watching them inside. Even if you’ve already got a sterling home cinema setup, those same devices won’t recreate that experience outside.
When you watch a film indoors, you have ultimate control.
And I’m not just talking about the films themselves. I mean everything! The lights, the sound, the screen are all easily taken care of.
When you take that same setup outdoors?
Not so much.
Outdoors you’ve got nature to contend with. The sun, the moon, the stars… that dog from two streets over with a simply astonishing diaphragm.
You’ve got to be smart from the beginning about how you approach your setup. Let’s break this bad boy down into equipment.
a) An outdoor movie screen
To give your movies the best look possible, I recommend getting a purpose-built screen.
A good viewing experience requires more than just any old surface on which to blast gigantic moving images. The screens in cinemas are specially designed to show the movie that’s being projected.
As the folks at HowStuffWorks explain, movie theater screens are made of heavy white vinyl and work differently, depending on how much light they reflect. The amount of light that bounces from the screen affects what we see in the audience. Cinemas normally use a pearlescent screen that offers the best contrast and as a result – the best picture.
For an outdoor movie screen, you need to consider a number of factors:
- Is it strong enough to withstand the elements?
- Does it take into account ambient light interference?
- Can it be easily cleaned and maintained?
Vinyl screens run the gamut, and for a quality mid-range one you’re looking at this $68.99 one from Vivo:
If you’re less fussed, the best-priced outdoor movie screen that’s PVC fabric runs for $32.99 on Amazon:
They’re like giant bouncy castles – but for showing movies!
Typically, an inflatable screen offers a similar viewing experience to those screens in movie theaters. The type of material delivers a striking image, and they’re easy to install. You plug them in, set them on and within 25-30 minutes they’re fully inflated.
Of all the ones currently available, the Gemmy Airblown screen is my top pick for inflatables.
It’s 12 feet wide, easy to assemble, comes complete with a series of weights to keep the screen in place and has tethers to maintain its position in the backyard. It’s pricey, however.
Interestingly, inflatable movie screen rental market has blown up – ahem, sorry – with a bunch of different companies offering you the chance to loan one. Seeing as how expensive they are – this could be a viable option.
Before we move onto projectors, let’s not rule out another type of screen.
Portable outdoor movie screens.
Granted, inflatable screens are technically portable as they can be taken apart and set up again easily. But portable screens are designed specifically to be mobile. They’re foldable and less cumbersome to transport. Their versatility makes them ideal for taking your outdoor movie night round to a friend’s house and for camping trips.
At 75 inches, and at $59.99 this Vamvo screen makes for a frankly epic movie-watching experience. No elbowing each other to try and see the screen, this is big enough that everyone in your group can see without huddling around a tablet!
This is the bee’s knees for three reasons:
- It’s under $60.
- It’s super simple to collapse down.
- It also comes with a handy bag to transport it.
Okay, but what if none of these screens have got your engine revving?
Well, screen paint is also an option.
This is a specially-designed type of paint that transforms any surface into the perfect medium onto which you can digitally project a movie. Screen paint can be sploshed onto the side of a garage to offer a better reflective surface or the side of an outbuilding. Of course, don’t go painting a wall that’s going to look unsightly with the rest of your yard.
Failing that? Try bed sheets! Two thick white bed sheets, sewn together and hung up in the yard work really well. I’d opt for fitted ones. The elastic will help it stay in place.
b) An outdoor movie projector
Unless you’re planning to run an actual drive-in movie theater, don’t try looking for movie projectors like the ones at the cinema. I know, they look badass:
But they’re also expensive, absolutely massive and they only project actual film. As in 35MM movie reels.
Unless you’re game to hunt down old prints of your favourite movies, it’s probably best to look for a more suitable device. (Although, isn’t the idea of showing genuine film kinda exciting?)
So, what’s the best outdoor movie projector for this project? That depends on what size screen you plan on using.
See, when you watch a movie at the theater, the projector is calibrated (oooh!) specifically for that environment. There’s sufficient light so you can make your way to your seat without accidentally dumping a mountain of popcorn on someone’s head, but it’s not so bright that you’re blinded.
Outdoors you’ve got many more factors to contend with:
- Street lights
- House lights
- The stars (how dare they!)
They can all affect visibility and bounce back onto the audience, making the contrast and sharpness of the movie less than impressive. It’s important to consider those various types of light pollution, as well as taking into account how big your outdoor screen is before purchasing a suitable projector.
The size of your screen should influence the amount of lumens needed in your projector. The larger the screen, the more “lumen power” you will need.
The team at OpenAirCinema recommend the following guidelines:
- 9×5 ft screen – 1500 lumens minimum, 2300 lumens are ideal
- 12×7 ft screen – 2300 lumens minimum, 3000 are lumens are ideal
- 16×9 ft screen – 3000 lumens minimum, 4500 are lumens are ideal
- 20×11 ft screen – 4500 lumens minimum, 7500 are lumens are ideal
- 25×14.5 ft screen – 5000 lumens minimum, 10000 are lumens are ideal
- 40×22.5 ft. screen – 5500 lumens minimum, 12000 are lumens are ideal
The majority of projectors made with home entertainment in mind are typically heavy and bulky, so you’ll want to steer clear of those and head for a lightweight option.
Bearing those factors in mind, what’s the best projector for outdoor movies? Well, there are several projectors on the market to match the size of your screen.
This LCD projector is an Amazon bestseller and boasts a ton of great features. It’s most importantly, portable:
This 2-inch projector works with everything: smartphones, tablets, consoles, and makes watching movies on the go less…. Well, cumbersome. It fits in the palm of your hand! This is worthwhile if you’re planning to recreate your outdoor movie theater when on the move:
Then there’s the Simplebeam that’s perfect for mid-range size screens with lumen output of 3200. In addition, it’s easy to transport:
One of the best on the market is the BenQ range of portable projectors. With impressive lumen output and short throw lens, they are hard to beat. A short throw lens is optimal for backyard movie nights if your yard isn’t particularly big; this means you can position your device close to the screen and it still projects a big image:
Hey, that’s all well and good but we’re wanting to come in under $300 for this entire thing. That’s why I’d consider the Elephas 1200 lumens mini. It has a resolution of 800 x 480 but it’s a quiet projector, packs a ton of connectivity options and comes in at $76.99.
c) Which media player is best for an outdoor movie theater?
Now you’ve got the first two elements sorted out, there’s the small matter of getting your movies to the projector. Let’s run through some options.
- Blu-ray player
One of the simplest ways is by using a Blu-ray player.
Gone are the days when disc players were a luxurious expense. There’s a slew of reasonably priced Blu-rays on the market and you could easily pick one up for cheap online or at a garage sale or thrift store. You can snap up refurbished players online for less than $40. They’re all backward compatible so you can play DVDs through them as well.
- Streaming media stick
If you have a strong WiFi connection that extends into your yard, you can plug in a streaming stick. Most projectors include USB ports, making connectivity simple and offering you an absolute slew of movies and TV shows.
- Laptop / tablet
Wanting to stream content from your laptop or tablet? Most Android devices support MHL, which stands for Mobile High-Definition Link. This is a way to send movies directly from a device to a projector in high definition without the need for unnecessary loops of cables snaking across the lawn!
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You might like: top 5 streaming media devices for under $200.
d) Outdoor sound system
What good is an outdoor movie night without a killer sound system?
Audio is an integral part of the whole experience. It’s just as important as the visual aspects of your setup. A crisp picture is great and all, but if you can’t make out the dialogue over the sound of your neighbour’s enthusiastic “exercise regime” then what’s the point?
You’re going to need two things to get this job done right.
Most projectors do come with speakers built-in but they’re often powerful enough. An open, outdoor setting warrants a good amplifier. If you’ve already got a decent amplifier for your indoor home cinema setup, that will work. All you’d need to do is disconnect it and set it up outside next to your projector and media player.
If not? Pick up a small, portable amplifier like this Pyle one for under $27:
You can also scope out your local thrift store for a great deal on used electronics.
Yep. I know what you’re going to say: if I’m already carting my amp outside, why not take my speakers too? Well, I’d recommend leaving your indoor set up as close to normal as possible.
Moving an amp is one thing, but unplugging all of your speakers too? It’s a hassle. Not just that, the speakers are built for a smaller, enclosed space.
You need something that’s going to project. A sound bar would be fine to move outside. Not got one? In the interest of not giving you a coronary, try a simple stereo setup. There are oodles of two-speaker sets you can pick up for less than $75, like this pair from Yamaha:
Okay, so an amplifier and speakers are necessary, but the ones you choose are dependant on a couple of additional factors.
- Connectivity: do you want wired or wireless?
This is a biggie.
Picking up wireless speakers is appealing for the simple fact that it’s one less set of cables to worry about. No-one’s going to trip over a cable coming back from the toilet, and send that recently-freshened jug of margaritas flying.
You won’t have to frantically figure out how to best coil the cables up and tie them neatly when the time comes to pack everything away.
- Location: Will they stay outside permanently?
Another huge question that many folks don’t consider.
A one-off outdoor movie night might mean you’re not wanting to completely redesign your backyard for the sake of cinema. That’s fine. In that case, opt for lightweight speakers that you can move without herniating a disc.
Similarly, where you live will affect this question too. Rain and other unpleasant precipitation can damage your speakers if they stay outside all year round.
Now you’ve got your equipment squared away, it’s time to move onto the next stage: dressing up your yard…
2. Creating phenomenal outdoor movie night ambiance + picking the right movie
Creating the perfect ambiance is a skill that will amplify your movie night. You want an evening that folks will talk about for years to come, right? Simple touches are the way to go.
Here are some great ideas to help illuminate the yard without making it look like someone’s rustic wedding:
- Drop candles in jars. This is a super-cheap way to class up the garden. You can opt for small tea lights or larger candles in Mason jars. Your mum’s likely got loads of both.
- Thread string lights across the yard. Thrifty. Nifty. And you can leave them up permanently if you like! They’d double for Christmas.
No, the ground won’t do.
- Chairs. An oldie but a goodie. Bring out your finest garden furniture to allow your guests a comfortable evening’s viewing. They might not be multiplex-comfy but it’s better than the grass.
- Huge cushions. A basic alternative to chairs that you may need anyway if you have extra people coming.
- Blankets. You can use these in addition to the chairs and cushions or instead of.
- Sofa. Hey, if you live somewhere dry this isn’t the worst idea in the world.
Serving refreshments is one way to ensure that people will definitely come to your outdoor movie night. But what oh what will you choose to serve up for your lovely guests?
As I’ve mentioned before, the snacks you choose to serve at your movie night could adhere to your movie night theme. Failing that, you should follow these guidelines:
- They’re inexpensive. Look, you’ve already forked out for a new amp, and dislocated your shoulder stringing up those lights. Don’t cripple your wallet too.
- And yet… they still look amazing. Cheap doesn’t mean shitty. You can craft something truly special with a bag of peanuts and a bowl. Likewise, dented cans of pop in an old rusty bucket can be very charming.
- They require little clean-up. If you’re feeling adventurous and want to show off your culinary skills, then, by all means, get going on your legendary chili you’ve been telling everyone about for years. It might take a lot more effort to clean up, however, so factor that into your plan.
In need of some inspiration? Check these selections out:
- EatWell’s 19 homemade movie snacks
- The Kitchn’s 10 make-at-home movie snacks
- Delish’s homemade movie snacks for adult movie night
With the food taken care of, let’s move onto The Most Important Thing.
Which are the best movies to watch outside?
That is the question.
You want something to show off the full brilliance of the theater you’ve carefully crafted. It needs to be action-packed, yet not too loud that the neighbours panic and think all those gunshots from your screening of From Dusk Till Dawn are real. It needs to embody summer and emphasise the balmy evening.
Bearing those factors in mind, here are my top 5 selections:
- Jurassic Park. See how loud you can push it with the subwoofer, especially when the T-rex starts chasing the Jeep.
- Back to the Future. What’s not to love? Wholesome entertainment with a nostalgic summer edge.
- Ghostbusters. Just to see how big the Stay Puft man looks on your screen.
- Jaws. Because it’s THE original summer blockbuster.
- The Shining. An unorthodox choice, yes. But dang, this needs to be seen on as big a screen as possible.
But wait, if we’re down to choosing a movie doesn’t that mean everything’s sorted? Not quite, as there’s still one important thing to conquer…
Before you start sending out e-vites let me warn you of a very important matter:
No-one uses e-vites anymore
Now that’s squared away, let’s carry on.
Before you start inviting people over, take stock of these important housekeeping duties:
- Establish your set-up safely
- Make sure that all electrical items are away from water.
- If you’re serving up food on a BBQ, then keep those same objects far away from the grill.
- Tie down all stray cables so they’re not looping up into the air like a python ready to strike.
- Keep spaces around the projector and your media player. Things can heat up fast in summer so keep a good airflow.
- Eliminate light sources
- Turn off as many lights as you possibly can before the movie starts. That includes all lights in your house.
- If you’re on good terms with your neighbours, ask them if they wouldn’t mind switching off that motion-sensor light that blinds you every time you go into your own yard.
- Take care of your equipment
- The summer months bring with them all sorts of crud. And I’m not just talking about bacon-citrus IPAs. No, I’m talking pollen. Clean your projector, screen, and speakers after every use so you’re not carting loads of allergy-tastic spores into your home.
- You will want to clean your projector’s filters as well, due to the build-up of additional particles that can be damaging in the long run.
- Let your neighbours know
- Be nice and let your neighbours know that you’ve got a backyard movie theater and you’re expecting it to be busier than the local AMC this summer. The last thing you want is to upset the folks next door, especially if that floodlight they’ve got has the potential to ruin the movie.
- But no, seriously, let people know. It’s the upstanding thing to do. And also, why not invite them over? It’s a cool way to get to know your neighbours.
- Don’t advertise or charge
- You’re not a public movie theater so don’t stick up posters or have a cover charge. This is a surefire way to get into trouble.
- You’re not allowed to charge an entrance fee or food fee when copyrighted material is being shown.
With all of that in mind, you’re about ready to launch your backyard movie theater. But before you go, let’s wrap things up.
Change your summer nights with a killer backyard movie theater
The summer months are one of the best times of the year because it’s blockbuster season! That also means you’re at risk of developing a vitamin D deficiency due to spending most of your time at the multiplex.
So what do you do to combat the vampiric look you’ve started to adopt?
Create your own backyard movie theater! Here’s why this idea is just, the best:
- It’s a great way to get outdoors while still indulging your movie habit
- You can invite friends over and party like it’s 1999
- It’s a thrifty project that’s quick to complete
That should bring this in for $251.78. Bargain!
But what about food, lighting, and movies? I’ve gone for the main components and not included food, drinks or decor. Why? Well, this is more for your initial setup costs. Those elements will vary depending on each movie night you have.
Go on, what are you waiting for?
Win the summer.
Images: Backyard with two trees designed by Freepik, Fish-eye home theater by Stephen Bowler via CC BY 2.0 license, Outdoor cinema by osde8info via CC BY 2.0 license, Arc Lamp Movie Projectors by John Fellner via CC BY 2.0 license, Speaker and mixer designed by Freepik, Lifestyle chair Designed by Freepik, Caramel popcorn on table designed by Freepik, Garden ready for barbecue esigned by Freepik, Film festival poster designed by Freepik