Outdoor movie viewings used to be the exclusive purview of drive-in theaters. Now, with the availability of affordable and portable video equipment, you can host your own outdoor movie nights, sports game viewings or video game parties without breaking the bank. Here’s what you need to share big-screen outdoor entertainment on a budget with your family and friends.
The central component of any backyard theater is, of course, the projector. Electronics stores and online retailers offer a plethora of options, with suitable entry level products such as this GooDee Movie Projector coming in at around $200. Consider the following features when shopping for models:
- Image brightness: how bright of an image the device can project, measured in lumens. A higher brightness can be seen in lighter surroundings, although all projectors require a fairly dark setting in which to work. A minimum of 2,000 lumens is recommended.
- Display resolution: how much detail the device can project. The “full HD” 1920×1080 resolution is a strong choice, but in an outdoor setting, lower resolution options such as 1280×800 or below can still provide a quality experience.
- Maximum size and throw distance: how big of an image the projector can project and what distances from the screen it can operate at. Use calculators like this one to find out how to match screen size with projector distance (or vice versa) for a given projector model so you don’t end up with a mismatched setup.
- Built-in speakers: whether or not the projector has built-in speakers. If not, you’ll need to supply and connect your own speakers, though you’ll likely get better sound quality for your efforts.
- Connectivity: how the projector receives audio/video content. HDMI is the most popular standard, and most modern entertainment devices can output to HDMI directly or with the use of an adaptor. Make sure all of the planned devices in your setup have compatible connectivity before you make any purchases.
- Keystone and lens shift: the ability to correct image distortion caused by the angle and position of the projector and screen. A model with physical/optical controls rather than electronic correction is ideal.
Once you have your projector, you’ll need something to project the image against. This can be an outside wall of your home, a bedsheet (or ideally, a white blackout cloth) suspended from a line or between poles, a homemade screen or a store-bought screen. Regardless of which route you go, your projection surface should be as flat, solid bright white and stationary as possible to produce the best image. Freestanding outdoor projection screens such as the 120-inch Elite Screens Yard Master 2 can be had for under $200. Screens without stands (such as for hanging or mounting) or those in smaller sizes cost less. If purchasing a screen, you’ll likely want one that matches the aspect ratio of your projector’s resolution, such as the popular 16:9 wide screen format rather than the older 4:3 ratio. Some screens allow the image to be projected from the rear of the screen rather than the front, which may be better for keeping your projector and its beam out of the way of your audience.
A projector is no good without something to supply video content to it. These days, just about any entertainment device that has a screen or connects to one can also be connected to a projector, although some may require add-ons such as HDMI adaptors to do so. Here are some popular video source devices that can work well with an outdoor setup:
- Blu-ray or DVD players
- Smartphones or tablets
- Digital media players (e.g. Google Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Roku, etc.)
- Video game consoles
If your projector doesn’t have built-in speakers, or you want better and louder sound, you’ll need to provide and wire your own speaker or speakers. This can be the trickiest part of your setup as you’ll often need to find a way to send a separate audio signal from your video source to your speakers. The simplest solution can be to plug a Bluetooth transmitter into your video source (if supported) so that you can broadcast your sound wirelessly to a suitably powerful Bluetooth speaker. Transmitters such as the TaoTronics Bluetooth 4.1 Transmitter cost about $30, and a 20+ watt Bluetooth speaker such as the OontZ Angle 3XL costs about $100.
Here are some other items you may need or want to complete your backyard theater setup:
- Extension cords and power strips
- Media cables (e.g. HDMI)
- Video content (Blu-ray discs, DVDs, digital rentals or digital files)
- Food and beverages (don’t forget the popcorn!)
- Seating (e.g. patio or camp chairs and blankets)
Once you have all the necessary components, follow these additional tips to make the most out of your big backyard theater night:
- Test your setup beforehand at your intended viewing hour to ensure that everything works as expected.
- Be a good neighbor by informing adjacent residents that you’ll be projecting images and sound in your backyard – or invite them over to attend.
- Review local regulations and don’t charge admission without the video copyright holder’s permission.
- If your screen is visible from neighboring properties, stick to PG-rated content.
- Cover cords and cables or keep them out of the way to avoid tripping hazards.
- Keep hazards such as food, kids and pets away from sensitive electronics to prevent damage.
- Consider using rope lights, solar pathway lights, TIKI torches or glow sticks for safety lighting
- Check the forecast for weather that might spoil your event, and likewise, turn off any automatic sprinklers that could interrupt the show.
- Refer to your projector’s instructions manual for specifics on outdoor use.
Drive-in movie theaters may be few and far between these days, but with your own equipment and know-how, you can enjoy and share the magic of outdoor video in the comfort of your own yard.