Set up a movie theater in your backyard for summer fun

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This story is part Tips for the houseCNET’s collection of handy tips for getting the most out of your home, inside and out.

Monday is the 4th of July, and for many people that means parades, fireworks and family reunions. In our family, it’s also the day we let Steven Spielberg’s rogue shark splash around in our backyard. Watching Jaws on the Fourth is a family tradition that dates back decades, but we only recently discovered the joy of watching it on the big screen in our own backyard on a warm summer evening.

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We’ve always loved having friends over for movie nights, watching everything from the latest Marvel release to classic ’30s comedies. But the pandemic has made us hesitant to invite anyone over to our house. Then it occurred to us: as long as we could avoid man-eating insects, a backyard cinema would allow us to continue enjoying movies with our friends and family while practicing social distancing.

Surprisingly, the process wasn’t terribly complicated or expensive. After consulting with friends, I opted for a 3,500 lumens ViewSonic Projector which could produce a 1280 x 800 resolution image as large as 120 inches diagonally. Projectors with 2,500 to 3,000 lumens, which measure the brightness of an image, are generally considered sufficient for outdoor viewing after dusk, but you want to consider more if daytime viewing is planned. Different companies measure lumens differently, so it’s not always an exact comparison when comparing models, but it’s a good general guide.

It costs around $400, but projectors can be had for under $100 or over $1,000, depending on the image quality you want. More lumens and 4K capabilities will make you more money.

Read more: Best 4K projector for 2022

Next comes the screen. I already knew from experience that simply hanging a bed sheet was not going to work, as they tend to blur the image by letting light in from behind. The first attempt was to use zip ties to secure a 120 inch foldable polyester screen to a homemade PVC frame. But this approach has proven to be unstable and difficult to store when not in use.

Although it was a bit smaller, we opted for a Zeny 100-inch retractable screen. It cost around $60, is wrinkle-resistant, and can easily be rolled up and stored out of the way when not in use.

With material decisions out of the way, the next big task is to decide on the screen-audience arrangement. We played around with hanging the screen from a wooden arbor on the lawn, but weren’t thrilled with the prospect of having lots of power, speaker and HDMI cables draped over the screen. ‘grass.

The sliding rear door was already flanked by a pair of exterior speakers under the roof eve that would act as left and right channels, making placement of the screen just outside the door an easy choice. (When extended, the lower part of the screen can easily be moved like a curtain to allow people to enter the courtyard.)

Read more: Get ready for summer cinema under the stars

It’s also not far from where my AV equipment is set up in the house, which was another plus as we wanted a wired connection rather than a streaming dongle. Many of my friends use dongles such as Amazon TV Firestick, Chromecast and Roku Streaming Stick Plus. It’s a pretty handy option if you have a heavy Wi-Fi footprint and only want to access streaming content. But I also wanted to use my Oppo Blu-ray player, so the course we mapped out was wired.

And therein lies the next challenge: how to get the signal to the projector. Running the HDMI cable and center channel wires through a nearby open window didn’t work for long, so I decided to run them through the interior wall that separates the family room from the living room, delivering my cables right next to the back door where I planned to place the screen. It also helped prevent signal degradation, which can happen on cables over 20 feet long.

After cutting through the drywall and connecting two newly installed A/V boxes, I was ready to thread the HDMI cable and center channel through the backdoor directly to the projector from 10 feet away. An exterior outlet provides the electricity, and it may one day be joined by an exterior outlet if I ever have the courage to cut through the exterior stucco.

Read more: Projector Setup Tips

Of course, it is not necessary to drill holes in the walls and there are other options. A wireless HDMI transmitter can do the trick, but it can be expensive and sometimes have wall and line-of-sight issues.

Many projectors also come with a built-in speaker, but the audio quality can be disappointing. You can also use 3.5mm audio jacks to hook up external speakers to the projector, but that doesn’t provide a cinema-like experience either.

After the initial setup, the arrangement I use can be up and running in less than 10 minutes. Simply place the projector on an outdoor table, place the center channel on a metal plant stand, move three banana plug speaker wires from one wall plate to another (like a telephone company from yesteryear) and lower the screen.

It’s nothing fancy, and it’s just one of many ways to create an outdoor theater. But it’s reminiscent of ditching the tailgate on hot summer nights at the drive-in movie theater. And it’s still a great way to get together, no matter the state of the pandemic.

Now let’s get some popcorn.

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