How to DIY Your Own Outdoor Movie Theater
How to DIY Your Own Outdoor Movie Theater
There’s nothing quite like watching a movie on a big screen, but many of us will be forgoing indoor movie theaters for the immediate future. And while drive-ins are making a comeback, you can get a much better AV experience in the comfort and privacy of your own backyard.
Building your own outdoor movie theater is far easier than it sounds, and can be easily scaled to suit your budget—from a simple projector/sheet combo to a full-fledged theater, with a big outdoor screen and speakers to really up the video and audio quality.
Here’s a look at what products you’ll need for your outdoor theater, along with some tips on how to make everything work together.
Though it’s possible to haul your TV outside for the occasional movie night, it’s not going to have the “wow” factor of a big-screen projection system. Modern home theater projectors offer excellent picture quality, and usually a far brighter image than you’d expect—not bright enough to watch outside during the day, mind you, but ample for a movie night under the stars.
All of the picks from our guide to the best budget projector for a home theater also work in an outdoor setting. (Not permanently, of course. You don’t want to leave any electronics outside that aren’t designed to live there.) They’re small and light enough to carry outside and set on a small table, yet they put out enough light to produce a large image. Want a 100-inch screen? No problem. 150? That’s doable for sure. Consider first the BenQ HT2050A. We like it because, in addition to being bright, it offers accurate colors and has a punchy contrast ratio, so it will look great when you want to bring the movie viewing inside, as well.
The one thing to consider with the HT2050A is that you’ll need around 8.4 feet of space between the projector and the screen to create a 100-inch image. If your backyard is shaped or sized in a way that this won’t work, the HT2150ST is a similar projector, but with a short-throw lens that lets you place it as close as 4.9 feet away from your screen to create a 100-inch image.
If you want something a little smaller, with a more convenient all-in-one design, we like the Anker Nebula Mars II Pro. It runs on Android, has a decent built-in speaker, and even comes with built-in streaming apps, so there’s no need to attach a separate media player. It also has a battery (you don’t have to run a power cable), plus a built-in handle to help you carry it. But it’s significantly dimmer than the BenQ projectors, which means you won’t be able to get nearly as large of an image, and the image you do get will be darker and potentially harder to see. However, if you’re looking for the simplest option and are okay with a modest-sized image, the Mars II Pro is your best bet.
You can find even less expensive projectors on the market, but they might not be as bright, they may have a lower resolution, and they may just have worse image quality—so they aren’t going to look as good when showing movies on a large screen.
A projector screen (or not)
The simplest way to watch an outdoor movie is, of course, to just shine the projected image on a wall of your house, but we don’t recommend this approach. There’s a reason why movie screens are so smooth. You’ll be able to see the texture and surface of the “screen” material no matter how bright the projector is. So if you’ve got wood shingles, you’ll see those shingles all colorfully lit by your movie. The same is true with stucco, or any other surface. The film’s colors will also shift with those of the wall. This option is certainly simple (and free), but you can do better.
A big white sheet is the most affordable solution that can still give you a decent image. The texture issue mentioned above can still be a concern, but it’s less so if you keep the sheet wrinkle free. Even a slight breeze will cause your screen to move, though, so for the best, least-distracting experience, you’ll want to pull the material as taut as possible when attaching it to a wall or homemade frame. Our top pick for the best sheets is available in white; however, since you’re probably going to ruin them, our budget pick from Target may be the better way to go—they’re far cheaper than our main pick but still have a 400 thread count.
If you want the best image out of whatever projector you choose, you should get an actual screen. We like the Elite Screens Yard Master 2. It’s related to one of our favorite indoor screens and comes with a sturdy frame and ground stakes, so it won’t blow over if your backyard gets a little windy. The Yard Master 2 is available in sizes ranging from 58 to 135 inches (in the 16:9 shape) and includes a storage/carrying bag.
If you want an even bigger screen, or if your yard’s layout requires that the screen be a little higher, the Yard Master Plus is available in sizes from 100 to 200 inches (also in the 16:9 shape), with a taller frame so the screen is higher off the ground.
A media player
What are you going to watch? Or, more importantly, how are you going to watch it? Long gone are the days when you needed to bring a DVD or Blu-ray player out to the yard along with the projector. I mean, you could still do that for sure, but there are easier options.
A streaming stick, such as the Roku or Amazon Fire, connects directly to the HDMI input on the projector, draws power from the projector’s USB connection, and uses your home’s Wi-Fi to stream movies from the ol’ interwebs. Just make sure your projector has a powered USB port. The BenQ HT2050A mentioned above has a USB connection on the back for this very purpose, as do many modern projectors. It will need at least 1 amp of output. Older projectors might have the USB port but may not be able to provide enough power. In that case, you’ll need to supply external power to the streaming stick.
If you don’t want to get a streaming stick, many laptops have the ability to output a video signal via HDMI, or through an HDMI adapter. You could run an HDMI cable from the computer to the projector, use a wireless HDMI transmitter, or explore other options for wireless connection.
The Nebula Mars II Pro mentioned above does make this part simpler, since the streaming apps are already built in. You just need a Wi-Fi connection strong enough to reach your backyard.
A better speaker
You probably want to be able to hear your movie, too. Technically, you can use the projector’s built-in speaker. However, in most cases this speaker is small and low powered, so it’s not going to sound great. If we’re talking about a few people seated close to the projector, that internal speaker might be fine. But if you’ve got a big yard or any kind of background noise (quiet, kids!), it could be hard to hear. Besides, if you’ve got a big screen, wouldn’t it be great to have big sound to go with it?
The easiest way to add a better speaker is to use the projector’s analog output, which lets you connect any speaker that has an analog input. Many Bluetooth speakers have this, as do most soundbars and, really, just about any speaker system. You’ll need an audio cable to connect the two, either a 3.5-mm–to–3.5-mm stereo cable or a 3.5-mm–to–RCA cable.
If you want (or need) to go wireless instead, you’ll have to use Bluetooth. However, this approach may create a noticeable lip-sync issue, wherein you see something happen on screen and hear it through the speaker an instant later. This is a common Bluetooth issue, but for an outdoor movie night it’s probably not a dealbreaker.
Sadly, pretty much all of the traditional projectors we recommend lack a Bluetooth connection to easily send the audio to a higher-quality Bluetooth speaker (the portable Nebula Mars II Pro has it), but there are ways to work around this. You can connect a speaker to a streaming stick, if you’re using one. With a Roku, you can make this connection via the Roku mobile app on your phone. It’s a little convoluted, so stick with me (pun intended). You connect the Roku app to your Roku stick, which is easy as long as you’re on the same Wi-Fi network. You then connect the Bluetooth speaker to your phone or tablet. The audio from the streaming content will go through your phone to the Bluetooth speaker. If you have an Amazon Fire TV Stick, you can connect directly—just go to the settings in the main menu.
If you’re not using a Roku or an Amazon stick—or another source device that has Bluetooth, like a laptop—another wireless option is a Bluetooth transmitter. These devices connect to the audio output of the projector or source and send the audio wirelessly to your Bluetooth speaker, just like if the source had built-in Bluetooth.
Some helpful accessories
The items above are the core components you’ll need for your outdoor cinema extravaganza. Depending on your house, yard, and so on, you might require a few other things to get everything up and running.
Extension cords are, of course, rather vital to your endeavor. Some cords have multiple outlets at the end, letting you run just one cable while still being able to plug in numerous devices. You could also get a power strip.
If you’re trying to stream video outdoors and your Wi-Fi signal isn’t strong or stable enough, your home’s Wi-Fi network may need a little help. Before you buy an extender or a new router, check to see whether your home network is as fast as possible.
And, of course, the outdoors is full of biting and stinging things. Don’t let them ruin your good times. From sprays to fans, we have several picks for the best bug repellants and mosquito-control gear.
For a full list of everything we recommend to build an outdoor movie theater, check out the post below.