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Put a Movie Theater in Your Backyard for a Summer Delight

Turning your yard into an outdoor cinema isn't as difficult -- or expensive -- to set up as you might think.

Outdoor movie screen
Take movies into the backyard when the weather warms up.
Steven Musil/CNET

This story is part of Home Tips, CNET's collection of practical advice for getting the most out of your home, inside and out.

Monday is the Fourth of July, and for many people, that means parades, fireworks and family get-togethers. In our family, it's also been 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 a 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 comedies of the '30s. But the pandemic made us wary of inviting anyone into our home. Then it occurred to us: As long as we could avoid man-eating bugs, a backyard theater would let us continue to enjoy movies with friends and family while still practicing social distancing.

Surprisingly, the process wasn't terribly complicated or expensive. After consulting friends, I settled on a 3,500-lumen ViewSonic projector that could produce a 1,280x800 resolution image as large as 120 inches diagonally. Projectors with 2,500 to 3,000 lumens, which measure an image's brightness, are generally considered sufficient for outdoor viewing after dusk, but you want to consider a greater number 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 cost about $400, but projectors can be had for less than $100 or more than $1,000, depending on the image quality you want. A greater number of lumens and 4K capabilities will run you more money.

Read more: Best 4K Projector for 2022

Next came the screen. I already knew from experience that just hanging a bedsheet wasn't going to work, as they tend to dull the image by letting light seep in from behind. The first attempt involved using zip ties to fasten a foldable, 120-inch polyester screen to a homemade PVC frame. But this approach proved unstable and awkward to store when not in use.

Even though it was a bit smaller, we settled on a Zeny retractable 100-inch pulldown screen. It ran about $60, is wrinkle free, and can easily be rolled up and stored out of the way when not in use.

With hardware decisions out of the way, the next big task is deciding the screen-audience arrangement. We toyed with hanging the screen from a wooden arbor on the lawn but weren't enthused by the prospect of having lots of power, speaker and HDMI cables draped across the grass.

The sliding back door was already flanked by a pair of outdoor speakers under the roof's eve that would serve as left and right channels, making placement of the screen in right outside the door an easy choice. (When extended, the screen's bottom part can easily be moved like a curtain to allow people to get into the yard.)

Read more: Gear Up for Summer Cinema Under the Stars

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

And therein lay 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. This also helped prevent signal degradation -- something that can occur on cables over 20 feet long.

After cutting through the drywall and connecting two newly installed A/V gang boxes, I was ready to string the HDMI cable and center channel out the backdoor straight to the projector 10 feet away. An outdoor plug provides the power, and it may one day be joined by an outdoor outlet box if I ever get the courage to cut through the exterior stucco.

Read more: Projector Setup Tips  

Of course, cutting holes in the walls isn't required and there are other options. A wireless HDMI transmitter may do the trick, but they can be expensive and sometimes struggle with walls and line-of-sight issues.

Many projectors also come with a built-in speaker, but the audio quality can be underwhelming. You can also use 3.5mm audio jacks to hook up external speakers to the projector, but this too doesn't deliver a theater-like experience.

After initial setup, the arrangement I use can be up and running in less than 10 minutes. It's just a matter of placing the projector on an outdoor table, putting the center channel on a metal plant stand, moving three banana-plugged speaker wires from one wall plate to another (like a telephone operator of yestercentury) and pulling down the screen.

It's nothing fancy, and this is just one of many ways to go about creating an outdoor theater. But it is reminiscent of dropping the tailgate on warm summer nights at the drive-in theater. And it's still a great way to get together, regardless of the state of the pandemic.

Now let's get some popcorn.