Setting up the perfect D.I.Y., outdoor movie theater is an excellent way to enjoy the starry summer nights with friends and family — and the best part, it’s relatively inexpensive and easy to do.
Here’s a shopping list:
- A projector
- A projection screen (Optional but ideal)
- A media player or streaming device
- An audio source
- Good weather, snacks and beverages
It’s important to point out that a permanent outdoor movie setup would require technology and gear rated for the elements, which drives up the cost and labor. In this article, we’ll cover what’s ideal for the perfect outdoor movie theater that you can easily set up and tear down for those summer nights you don’t want to end.
Buy a Bright, High Contrast Projector
If you’re going to spend a little extra on any one device, it’s the projector. A bright, contrasty projector will help display a high resolution image beautifully in the backyard.
Projectors range in price from roughly $80 up to $300 and beyond. But do you really need to spend $300 for the best image quality? Not necessarily.
The main specs to look for:
- 1080P Full High Definition (or better) — A projector that can display images in full high definition will produce clearer videos at larger resolutions, meaning you can expand the size of the movie. Most projectors on the market today support up to 1080P video output, however, some remain at 720 natively but can upscale to 1080P. In some cases, this could degrade the image quality, but it’s not always a dealbreaker.
- A High Contrast Ratio (or better) — The greater the contrast ratio, the better the image quality (to put it simply). Projectors with high contrast ratios show clearer images in varied light, which is ideal for outdoor spaces like backyards that may be subject to ambient light sources. Look for ratios 1,000:1 and higher.
- Higher Lumens = Brighter Video — The brightness of a video or image displayed by a projector is measured in lumens. The higher the lumens, the brighter the image. This becomes more important for environments that can’t control the lighting as well. Paired with a high contrast ratio, a bright projector will display a crisp, colorful image for an optimal movie-going experience, even if it’s only in the backyard.
Many projectors on the market today also come equipped with built-in speakers, HDMI, USB, VGA and other AV ports. Some are wireless or come with a built-in battery. Some have a range of how short or far they can “throw” images.
Depending on your budget and plans, the market is full of spec-heavy projectors.
It would be wise to invest in one that comes with many AV ports, so you have options for a media source or streaming device (read more below). Built-in speakers are a nice convenience, but the audio quality may not be right for all scenarios, say, for example, if you expect to entertain a bigger audience.
Picking the right projector will take some time and research. The best way to start is to first work out your spatial, power, use and budget requirements.
A Sturdy Projection Screen Is Worth the Expense
Sure, you can hang a white bedsheet up and hope the wind stays down. But to get the perfect viewing experience, you must consider pairing your 1080P, high contrast, super bright projector with a proper screen.
The main advantage of a screen, versus the side of your garage or a bedsheet, has to do with the smooth, true-to-color display. Unlike the rippled texture of vinyl siding or the squirrely nature of a bedsheet, a taut and balanced projection screen is simply going to do the movie justice (and be far less annoying for those in the audience).
For your backyard movie theater setup, you’ll want to consider how much space you have to work with. If the space you plan to use for an outdoor movie theater isn’t very big, then you’ll likely need a short-throw projector or one that works within those confines.
Projectors scale from roughly 50 inches to over 200 inches (measured diagonally). Many also come with nice carrying cases and stands to keep them upright. Some even have stakes to help reinforce the stands for outdoor environments (what a bonus!).
Where to start:
- Survey your outdoor movie area to determine where the projector will go and where you’d ideally like the projection screen to go. This will help determine what kind of projector you buy and how big of a projection screen will work for the space. If it’s too big, then you risk dead space and over spending; if it’s too small, then you risk cropping the video and a poor viewing experience.
Where Will Your Video Come From?
A critical component to the whole backyard drive-in is the video source. Where will your video come from?
Here are the most likely sources:
- DVD or Blu-ray player
- A laptop or mobile device
- A streaming device or stick
If you plan on playing DVDs or Blu-rays, then you’ll need to connect the player to the projector (likely via an HDMI cable). You’ll also need power for these devices, so keep a power strip and extension cables handy.
The same goes for a laptop, but with an added layer: WiFi. Laptops, mobile devices, streaming players and sticks will require WiFi from the house to access streaming apps like Netflix, Hulu, and the rest.
If you think you’ll be out of range, you might need to invest in an extender to ensure your connection doesn’t drop during the best part of the movie. (Don’t you hate when that happens?)
Want High-Fidelity Audio? Go with Hardlined, External Speakers
As mentioned earlier, many projectors on the market today include built-in speakers that could serve perfectly well for some audiences. If it’s just a small get-together or a family night, busting out a full-blown speaker system likely isn’t worth the trouble — unless you’re a HiFi nut like we are.
To get really good audio for a premium outdoor movie experience, you’ll want to shop for a set of external speakers that jack into the projector using a 3.5mm or a RCA cable (you may need an adapter in some situations).
Physically connecting speakers to the projector does away with any audio sync issues you’d likely have with a Bluetooth or other wireless connection. However, the down side is managing the cables and assuring they get enough power outside.
With your budget and other requirements in mind, weigh the pros and cons of high-quality audio for your outdoor movie theater.
- Better sound quality
- Ideal for larger spaces and audiences
- Performs better with ambient noise
- Cable management
- Power requirements
Internal Speakers (Projector)
- Saves on cost
- Good for smaller audiences
- Less setup and fewer cables
- Lower quality audio (especially with ambient noise)
- Audio levels might not work for large groups
Take the Trouble Out Setting Up Your Outdoor Movie Theater
Once you’ve set up your outdoor movie theater, it’s easy enough to see yourself and others enjoying your favorite flicks and films with cold beverages, snacks, and laughs. It’s a great way to spend summer nights at home, instead of venturing out to a drive-in or the theater, while leveling up movie nights.
So what’s standing in your way? If what’s standing in your way is the setup and technical prowess to bring it all together, you need an AV Hero. AV Heroes are skilled and experienced technicians who can help you throughout the entire process to ensure your movie nights don’t experience unwanted intermissions. They can help with troubleshooting, setup and more.