Few summer activities are as magical as watching a classic movie or current blockbuster beneath a blanket of stars. Except for enjoying your favorite film from the comfort of your own backyard.
"There's huge demand in the landscape industry for outdoor living spaces—creating fun spaces to entertain family and friends—because outdoor has been our safe space for the last year," explains Lisa Schaumann Stryker, vice president of communications with the National Association of Landscape Professionals. "There's a renewed love for being outside and extending your social experience with your family and friends."
As outdoor entertaining increases, many people are rediscovering their backyards and repurposing them to suit their favorite pastimes, including watching movies. Whether you're planning to host a small backyard family movie night or a big screening for all your friends and neighbors, setting up a backyard theater can be as simple or elaborate as you choose, and done on a range of budgets. To get started, jot down a list of your favorite films. Once finished, here's what you're going to need to watch them—and about how much you can expect to pay to make it all happen.
Outdoor Movie Projector
Unless you plan to gather everyone around your phone or laptop, a projector is the most vital piece of any outdoor theater. While there are many to choose from, you'll want to pick the one that is best suited to your specific needs—including how and when you plan to use it—to help decide which one to purchase.
"If you're using it during the day, you need a much, much brighter light output to compensate for the sun that's going to wash out a lot of images," says Jed Glaser, a home entertainment specialist with photo and video retailer B&H.
That light output is measured in lumens and, for the most part, the higher the output, the better the picture. Glaser says it's important to have high output even when it's dark out because there's usually some degree of ambient light that can affect the quality.
"I usually recommend a minimum of 4,000 lumens for an outdoor projector that you can use at dusk or after," he says. "During the day, you might need as much as 8,000 or 10,000 lumens."
That said, there are decent multimedia projectors that put out far less, and it's possible to get a basic one starting at around $350 with respectable resolution and around $550 for a high-definition projector, according to Glaser.
Deia Zukowski, managing editor of home electronics learning content at Crutchfield, recommends three Epson projectors at various price points. On the higher end, Zukowski recommends the Epson Home Cinema 3800. Retailing at around $1,700, it can be paired with 4K video sources for top-notch resolution, and it also comes equipped with built-in Bluetooth.
At around $1,000, Zukowski's midrange option is the Epson Home Cinema 2250. Although it boasts fewer lumens, it has built-in Bluetooth for playing sound through a Bluetooth-compatible speaker. "It's a good value for anyone who already owns a robust Bluetooth speaker, or better yet, a pair that offers stereo mode," she says.
On a budget, she suggests the Epson Home Cinema 1080. "This one gets very bright," Zukowski says. With a 3400-lumen output, it retails for around $700 to $750 and can be displayed from either a laptop or mobile device.
Finally, if you aren't ready to commit to a projector or only plan to watch movies outdoors once or twice a season, consider renting instead of purchasing. Many local rental stores carry audio-visual equipment and have projectors starting at around $100 per day or $250 for a week.
Outdoor Movie Screen
There are a variety of options when it comes to movie screens. On a budget, you can easily make your own movie screen: use PVC pipes and a drop cloth, hang a sheet, or simply project the movie onto the side of your house.
But according to Zukowski, that's less than ideal. "It's not a great experience; the image is dull and lacks contrast," she says.
Inflatable screens are an excellent option for outdoor use. Easy to set up and take down, most are weather-resistant and come with their own inflation fan and storage bag. Depending on the size, inflatable screens run anywhere from $90 for a 14-foot projection screen to $1,000 for a 33-foot screen.
Standing screens are another option. Available in a variety of sizes, they feature adjustable leg heights and can be moved to suit the proper distance to the projector for best picture quality.
They range in price from $75 to $1,300 (or more) for a high-end model like Elite Screens, which is what Zukowski recommends for a "crisp picture with accurate colors."
At $394, a solid mid-range choice is the Elite Screens Yard Master 2 Dual, which works with both front and rear projections and folds up neatly into a bag when you're done using it.
Note that when you're using a standing screen outside, you should make sure to secure it to help prevent a wind gust from sending it cartwheeling across your yard. To protect your investment, Glaser recommends using sandbags to stabilize the legs or, for a more semi-permanent option, he suggests installing a pull-down screen ($64 and up) inside your garage. "This way, the screen is protected from the wind and retracts out of the way when you want to pull the car in or use the garage for any other purpose," he says.
Although many projectors come with sound, the quality isn't always great, and it certainly isn't going to come close to delivering theater-worthy audio, especially outdoors. Fortunately, there are a lot of different options to ensure you don't miss a single word. Choosing which audio products you need depends on how you plan to set up your system.
"The big things you want to think about with what you're doing are: Is it going to be portable? Is it going to be something that stays outside year-round? Or is it something that'll be out for certain periods of time?" says Brian Sowden, technical field supervisor for World Wide Stereo.
For convenience and portability, he suggests the Sonos Roam, a Bluetooth speaker with WiFi and voice control that is also waterproof. At around $169, it features up to 10 hours of playtime.
According to Sowden, a solid midrange choice is the Sonos Move. Retailing for $399, the smart speaker is weather-resistant, portable, and battery-powered. It boasts a deep bass and wide soundscape, ideal for outdoor range and use.
If you already own an amplifier, you can save a few bucks by simply hauling out your wired box speakers and hooking them up. Should the weather turn, however, it can be a major hassle to unplug and haul them (along with everything else) into the house or garage.
For the ultimate outdoor theater year-round, Sowden suggests installing a permanent outdoor speaker system, like the Sonance Patio Series, starting at around $2,000.
Whatever you choose for sound, it's important to keep the neighbors in mind, because while you might enjoy Star Wars at full volume, the toddler next door might not. That's why Sowden says that if you plan to set up an outdoor theater, make sure to point the speakers toward your home.
"They're still going to cover the same amount of space for you, but you're not giving your neighbor either an annoyance or a free show," he says.
Outdoor Movie Accessories
With the basics covered, the next order of business is to figure out how to watch your movies. For that, you'll need an outlet or power source along with some type of media player—which, fortunately, most people already own.
Depending on your projector's connectivity, compatibility, and Wi-Fi connection, you can hook up a standard DVD player (bulky, but it works), laptop, streaming stick, or even your smartphone. If you don't have outdoor extension cords on hand, you'll likely need at least one ($10 and up), if not more, to connect to power. And depending on the projector, you might also need a standard HDMI cable ($8 and up).
Finally, make your outdoor movie theater seriously fun by adding all the trimmings. Lifestyle blogger and entertaining expert Julie Blanner suggests that before heading to the store to stock up on all things film-related, start by shopping at home.
"I like to pull from things that we already have, which makes it extremely inexpensive and very accessible," says Blanner.
Found items like flameless candles, outdoor throw pillows, and snacks that are already in the pantry can all help save a few bucks. To level up without breaking the bank, Blanner suggests investing in cozy but inexpensive throw blankets for family and friends. "I've found them for $5 a piece and keep the color palette really tight."
If money's no object, of course, there are commercial-grade popcorn machines, outdoor recliners, movie candy, and bar carts galore, available at a variety of price points to fully outfit any backyard movie theater.
But don't worry: Even without any of the extras, backyard movie nights are still pretty magical.