Ultimate Guide to Outdoor Movies

Steve Scott

Updated on

Ever since I was a kid, my family loved watching movies at our local drive in. Unfortunately, drive-in theaters have become a relic of the past. There are only a couple hundred functioning drive-in theaters left in the United States.

The number, sadly, has been dwindling in recent years too. It’s a slippery slope from which there appears to be no escape.

outdoor theater

Guide to Outdoor Movies and Backyard Theaters

For those who have never experienced watching a movie outside with friends on a cool summer night while enjoying the fresh air and your favorite drink you’re definitely missing out.

That’s why I’ve created this guide, to share one of my family’s favorite fun activities. Outdoor movies are not only easy to setup, but they are something I can guarantee your entire family will enjoy.

So let’s just jump right into it.

Setting up an outdoor theater is pretty easy, but you’ll need the following items to create an enjoyable experience:

  1. A high quality projector (I provide some recommendations at the bottom of this page)
  2. A laptop or other device that you can connect to the projector for movies.
  3. A decent sound system, two speakers are ideal.
  4. An outdoor theater screen.
  5. An extension cord with enough slots for all your electrical components.

With these items, creating an enjoyable outdoor movie experience is simple.

A Screen to Play Your Movies On

Depending on whether you want your theater to be permanent or temporary, you can pick one of two options when it comes to your screen.

For the temporary alternative, simply pin two or three thick white sheets, preferably king sized, to a clothes line. This will function as your makeshift projection and movie screen. Read our DIY screen setup guide.

The easier, more expensive, and more permanent option is to buy a screen from a store. These come with their own supports built in, provide a far better image overall, and come in pretty large sizes.

Screens that have been made for you are typically way better in terms of their image quality. If you’re on a budget, though, make sure you choose whichever option benefits your wallet more.

Set the Right Distance

​The fun factor is the same whether you use sheets or a real screen! Whichever you do get, make sure you set up your projector with the right distance between it and the screen for the widest coverage. 

This will also help with your seating arrangements.

Once you have your screen, hang it up or stand it up for playback. For sheets, versatility is the biggest benefit.

You can slip them on a clothes line, hang them from an awning, mount them on the gutter, and more.

Your imagination is your only limitation. Ensure that you have enough space to hang it straight down, and try to avoid blocking doorways into your house.

The refreshment breaks will be far easier without a big movie screen blocking the way.

movie screen

A Projector for Your Video

This is a big DUH!

Anyone looking to set up their very own backyard home theater. A projector is an absolute necessity. It is also going to be the most expensive part of the setup.

If you are working on a budget, you should save the bulk of it for this purpose. Check out our guide to learn more about some of the best backyard ​projectors under $500.

While there are definitely some great projectors that work well with a budget, they will still cost you upwards of $1000. You do need high quality, though, so try to avoid anything below this price range.

When buying yourself a projector, look for certain factors in the technical specs. One of these is the aspect ratio.

Aim for a unit that has a 16:9 aspect ratio. This is the native ratio for HDTV, BluRay, and other modern movie formats.

As such, most of your movies will work with the same appearance as in the widescreen of a theater if you use a 16:9 projector.

Look for FullHD Resolution

For resolution, look for a projector that has 1080p or 1080i output. This is the standard high definition resolution. Most DVDs and Blu-rays on the market today play at Full HD or 1080p.

This will serve you well for most of your needs. You can, of course, opt for a 4K resolution projector too.

The problem is that this will cost you a pretty penny. If you’re on a very tight budget, a 720p projector might be the better choice for you.

Remember that it won’t hurt you too much to upgrade later on in the lifetime of your theater.

When placing your projector at the right distance from your screen, don’t be afraid to experiment.

Move the projector closer to and further away from the screen until you have the picture size and quality that you feel is great.

If you have a larger distance to cover in your backyard, you can work with a larger screen to produce more viewing angles for your guests. This results in more versatility with the seating too.

outdoor projector

For a couple of our top suggestions read our guide to best portable projectors and also best short throw projectors

A DVD or Blu-ray Player

Obviously, if you plan on watching movies, you’re going to need a source. The movies aren’t going to play themselves.

Most people use a DVD or BluRay player, but you get a far wider range of options if you use a laptop. Projectors today have an HDMI in port that can connect directly to your laptop.

This means you can project Netflix onto your home theater screen without a struggle. You also won’t have to spend money to buy yourself a brand-new disc player just for your theater.

Most laptops today have their very own disc player too. These can be either Blu-ray or DVD compatible.

If you plan on playing from external media like discs, and your laptop doesn’t have a player, you can purchase a portable player for less than $100 if you really want one.

However, there are also projectors that are compatible with USB thumb drives, so you should consider your typical movie sources before buying something you will rarely use.

If you still aren't sure of the difference between BluRay or DVD read this. 

dvd vs blu ray player

Sound System Setup Guide

While you might have glorified visions of a 5.1 surround sound system in your backyard, you might not want to do this. It can lead to a host of problems.

One of these is carrying everything in when you’re done, along with how long it will take to set up and position.

By far the best and easiest option for an outdoor home theater is to use a standard stereo setup.

You can do this in two ways.

For one, you can take out just the middle receiver and the two stereo speakers from your current surround sound system. This gives you a nice, easy 2.1 speaker setup.

You will need to place the receiver under your screen or in the middle, and hang the stereo units on the upper left and right corners of the projector screen.

You can also opt to buy a new 2.1 sound system. These are cheap enough, as you won’t need stellar sound.

Look for a receiver with a power rating of 100W per channel for the best value for money. If you get speakers that have floor stands, that’s even better for you.

There won’t be the constant worry of the supports coming loose and the whole contraption falling down.

Always place the left and right speakers at the corners of the screen for the most realistic theatrical experience.

sound system

An Extension Cord and Surge Protection

One thing you will need for everything to work properly is an extension cord to supply power to the system. This has to be one with surge protection, and it needs to be of a very resilient quality.

For example, the surge protector needs at least three outlets for plugs. The cord will have to be about 30 feet long if you want to draw power to a larger backyard.

You can find this type of surge protection system in your local electronics store or hardware supplies store. Look for an orange cord; these are designated as being weatherproof.

You can use it outside in rain or shine because the insulation is incredibly thick and strong.

When you do plug everything into your surge protector, remember to keep the power off until you have all the plugs connected and ready. You’re here to watch a movie, not to be a lightning rod.

Cables and Wiring for your Speakers

Now your job is to connect everything you have together. You’re going to need cables for connecting your projector to your laptop and other movie sources.

Get yourself video cables: S-video, component, and HDMI cables.

You should also get analog cables for audio from sources like a PS3. These are the red and white jacks found on older DVD players. These need to be connected from your projector to your speaker receiver.

Look for lengths from 3 to 6 feet for the video cables, and about 10 feet for the audio cables from the projector to the receiver. You will also need speaker wiring for your receiver-speaker connection.

A roll of this can be obtained from your local hardware or electronics store, usually with about 100 feet of wire in one purchase. Cut off the lengths you need and connect the receiver to your stereo speakers.

A Collection of Movies to Play

The single most important part of your home theater setup is your collection of movies! Get yourself some classics on DVD and Bluray to start the collection off. Move into crowd favorites, comedies, trilogies, cartoons, and others.

Ask your moviegoers to vote on what they want to see so that you can prepare and add these to your collection in advance.

With these items, creating an enjoyable outdoor movie experience is simple.

Check out my Pulp Fiction inspired infographic to learn more:

outdoor movie infographic

If you don’t have the required items, investing in them is a good idea, as they’ll always come in handy and they create a more enjoyable movie watching experience than your living room television.

How to Make it More Enjoyable for All

Now that you have all your components, it’s time to set them up. After that, there are some tips for ensuring the best experience at your home theater ever, so make sure you stay tuned!

Setting up Your Theater

  1. Select a space for your theater. Your backyard is the best option.
  2. Hang up your sheets or stand your screen up. Do this so that there is as little outside light shining onto the screen as possible. You want it to be in the darkest part for the clearest picture to be projected.
  3. Stand your projector a good distance away from the screen.
  4. Stand your speakers at the corners of the screen.
  5. Set up chairs in an arc around the screen, like you see at a normal cinema.
  6. Connect your extension cord to a wall outlet and bring it outside. Make sure the wire won’t trip anyone up.
  7. Attach the surge protector to the extension cord and plug in your projector and speakers.
  8. Connect your speakers to your receiver, and your laptop or audio source to the receiver.
  9. Connect the projector to your laptop
  10. Turn the power on and then move the projector back or forwards as needed till the projected picture fits the screen.
  11. Adjust the zoom, brightness, and contrast of the projector. There are preset modes that are perfect for outdoor movies.
  12. Set up a BBQ outside, get a cooler with drinks, and wait for guests to arrive!

Note – Make sure the seats are more concentrated around the middle of the viewing area. Since your “screen” isn’t curved, viewing from an angle might be bothersome to some users.

Tips for Having a Better Movie Night

Here are some useful tips that will help you and your guests have the best time ever while at the movies.

  • Your neighbors are going to be pretty nastily surprised if you start playing Star Wars at 9 pm without letting them know first. Always keep your immediate neighbors informed about your movie nights. If you’re on good terms with them, try inviting them over to share in the revelry for the night. If you don’t want this, take some food over to them and let them know you’re having an event that night. The last thing you need is a noise complaint.
  • Check the bylaws of your state, county and neighborhood to ensure that you aren’t violating any noise laws by playing a movie past a certain time. If you have a facebook community or board for the local area, post on it welcoming any complaints, and informing everyone. By being respectful to the people around you, you gain their respect in return.
  • Don’t charge money. This is a pretty obvious statement. If you’re watching a movie with family and friends, charging them for the night is a very underhanded move. Even worse – you’re breaking the law. While you can watch a movie you paid for with your friends and family, you absolutely cannot gain anything from it. This violates the law and leaves you open to federal prosecution.
  • Think about the placement of your food station and pool, if you have one. If you’re going to be BBQing food, keep the grill downwind of the seating area. The smoke, smell, and humidity could drive everyone away from the theater. In addition, ensure that your projector is placed somewhere it can work without building up moisture and heat. Keep it away from direct exposure to the elements.
  • Look for light sources that you can turn off. If you’re in the backyard and the kitchen light is on, it can be a little distracting for the people watching the movie. Turn all outside light off if you can. Streetlights can be a bother and must be avoided by turning your screen to a different angle.

What You Need to Know before Setting up an Outdoor Theater

In order to avoid issues, there are a few things that you should know before you set up a home theater.

Wind and weather

For starters, the wind can have a negative impact on your experience. Make sure that either the area where you choose to set up the outdoor theater is shielded from the wind or choose a day with little or no wind.

The last thing that you want is to have to chase your outdoor theater down the road or into a neighbor’s yard like a kid chasing a kite.

Not to mention that these products have metal parts which can easily break a window or damage property if swept away by a gust of wind.

Ideally, an outdoor theater should be set up in an enclosed environment, such as a yard with hedges or walls around it to shield the interior from wind.

These are the ideal locations for outdoors theaters but if your yard does not have protection from the wind that’s fine too; there are other solutions.

The other solution would be to purchase an outdoor theater that can either hold its own against gusts of wind or one that can be weighed down with objects to secure it to the ground.

This is a factor that you need to consider and one that we’ll discuss in more detail when we mention our favorite outdoor theaters.

Let’s also not forget about rain, as it has the potential to destroy all our equipment. Check the weather forecast before you set up the system, and you might also want to consider placing all your easily-damaged equipment under a tarp or plastic protection.

You should also keep in mind that some screens are no resistant to weather and can become moldy or damaged by the elements. Make sure you pick a screen that is weather resistant.

Sound Volume

The point of living in a residential neighborhood is to avoid the busy sounds of cities, so it’s important to keep the sound volume to a reasonable level.

Of course, this is only necessary if you are setting up the theater in your backyard, but if you’re in a place that’s a good distance from populated areas, sound volume is not an issue.

Still, sound travels far, especially if you’re blasting sound with massive sub-woofers. Therefore it’s important to be considerate of other people’s needs.

What I like to do is watch the movie with subtitles, so we don’t have to put the volume too high, and we can still understand the lower-volume portions of the movie without straining our ears.

Some outdoor theater systems come with speakers that are mounted to either side of the screen to create a surround sound system. These are ideal for outdoor theaters, and we’ll discuss some complete systems later on in this article.

sound volume

Seating arrangements

Since we can’t exactly drive our car into our backyard, we’ll need some comfortable seats for our attendees. Lawn chairs are nice, and sometimes we even drag the living room couch out back for more comfort.

Then again, if we move the couch around too many times there’s a risk of damaging it, so more portable chairs are ideal. You’ll also want something that has an incline, since sitting straight-up for the entire duration of a movie is not comfortable. The kids usually bring blankets out with their chairs.

​In Conclusion

Now that you know the essentials of setting up your very own movie theater in your backyard, you’re just about ready to go! If you have any doubts about the placement of your screen and projector, you shouldn’t keep them to yourself.

There are plenty of forums filled with people who will assist you in this quest to have an amazing movie night without having to pay the exorbitant prices in actual theaters.

Always air out your thoughts and doubts. If you need to, enlist the help of a professional, or at least someone who has set a movie theater up before.

Remember to keep the volume down, keep your neighbors abreast of the situation, and to have enough food and drink to keep everyone happy.

Above all else, try to keep things as simple as possible. This is the best way to make life easier for yourself – if your set up process and cleanup process is as easy as 1-2-3, you won’t feel like it’s a hassle to do a movie night!

With that final bit of advice, good luck and have an amazing time at the movies with the people you love.

Also I should mention, if you’re looking for projectors made for gamers we have a great post about that as well.

My name is Steve Scott. Father of 2 and owner of Outdoor Movie HQ. I’ve been involved in the A/V industry for most of my life and built this blog to help people better understand projector technology. Please leave a comment if you have any questions.

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