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Can you build a backyard theater on the cheap?

You don't have to spend thousands of dollars to enjoy open-air cinema. But you'll still need brisk popcorn sales to cover some hardware costs.

Rick Broida Senior Editor
Rick Broida is the author of numerous books and thousands of reviews, features and blog posts. He writes CNET's popular Cheapskate blog and co-hosts Protocol 1: A Travelers Podcast (about the TV show Travelers). He lives in Michigan, where he previously owned two escape rooms (chronicled in the ebook "I Was a Middle-Aged Zombie").
Rick Broida
3 min read
Big yard, big screen, big fun.
Big yard, big screen, big fun. Open Air Cinema

A couple years back I had the chance to review an outdoor movie kit from Open Air Cinema. It was really cool, combining an HD projector, inflatable screen, sound system, and other gear -- but for a jaw-dropping price of around $5,500.

I think for that kind of money, I should be able to get actors to come to my back yard and perform live.

Fortunately, it's possible to assemble your own open-air cinema for a lot less.

The projector

At $699.99, the high-def Optoma HD20 is an excellent budget projector for backyard cinema.
At $699.99, the high-def Optoma HD20 is an excellent budget projector for backyard cinema. Optoma

Arguably the single most important element, and certainly the most expensive, is the projector. You want one that's as bright as possible (so you can start your screenings at dusk instead of dark), and I'd say it's crazy not to go with a 1080p model. (The bigger the screen, the more those pixels count.)

Projector prices vary wildly, and often range into the thousands. But as budget picks go, it's nearly impossible to beat the Optoma HD20. It's currently available from Amazon for $699.99 shipped, and has an average user rating of 4.3 stars. It's not what I would call mega-bright, but it's bright enough -- and the price is hard to beat unless you go used or refurbished.

The Blu-ray player

This one's easy: Any Blu-ray player will do. I frequently see refurbished models selling for $40-$50. If you're interested in streaming content from the likes of Netflix or Amazon, obviously you'll want a model with built-in apps and Wi-Fi -- though keep in mind that your router's Wi-Fi signal probably won't be great in the back yard. Do some field-testing before you invite the neighbors over.

The screen

An inflatable screen is a nice perk, but it requires constant power, and the blower makes noise.
An inflatable screen is a nice perk, but it requires constant power, and the blower makes noise. Gemmy

When it comes to the screen, you have a couple options. If you're into speed and convenience, Target has a Gemmy Airblown inflatable movie screen for $169.99. It comes with everything you need: a blower, tethers, stakes, and a storage bag.

Too pricey? Too noisy? (That blower will definitely force you to crank the speakers a little louder.) Break out your tools and build your own outdoor movie screen, like this one described over at Instructables. It should cost you no more than about $40 in parts -- and it won't drown out the movie.

Of course, the cheapest option by far is to hang a king-size bedsheet (either white or light gray) on, say, the side of your house or your garage door. I've done that, and it works just dandy.

The sound system

Now for the really tricky part. For movie audio, the aforementioned Open Air Cinema kit combined a Rolls MX122 MiniMix Pro sound mixer (available separately online for about $100) with a pair of Behringer Eurolive B208D speakers (about $180 apiece). If you've got room in the budget, I can't recommend this combo highly enough; the sound quality was phenomenal (and loud).

On the other hand, if you have an old stereo lying around, you could probably pair its receiver with the Blu-ray player (or projector), then connect any available speakers -- though you might need to spring for longer speaker wires so you can position them close to the screen. Hit up a few garage sales and you might find perfectly serviceable audio gear for next to nothing.

I'm no expert when it comes to the audio stuff, so if you have any better suggestions, I'm (sorry) all ears.

One last thing

Be sure you have plenty of extralong extension cords on hand (you'll need to power at least three items, if not four or five), as well as a flashlight or two so you can find the pause button in the dark and take down all the equipment when the movie's over.

Ultimately, for not much more than the price of a projector, you can cobble together a pretty decent backyard movie theater. And if you're willing to spend closer to $1,400, you can assemble your own kit for a fraction of the price of a commercial one. Now you just need to invite the neighbors, pop some popcorn, and enjoy some cinema under the stars.

What's your top movie pick for open-air viewing? If you want something family-friendly, look no further than "The Iron Giant."