Whether you have fond memories from the backseat of the family station wagon or learned everything you know about the drive-in from movies themselves, open-air cinema isn't only a distinctly American experience—it's something that just feels right when summer rolls around. And when you're the director of the backyard theater, you need just the right gear to turn those warm nights into cinematic memories.
Doesn't matter if you're watching Jaws or Dirty Dancing—backyard movie night begins and ends with the quality of your projector. But don't get lost in a sea of specs; keep an eye out for the features that matter most. Lumens measure the projector's all-important brightness, and for outdoor events you'll want at least 2,000 lumens (but the higher the better). Second to lumens, check out the contrast ratio; the higher ratios yield crisper images, brighter colors, and deeper blacks. That's key if you're into horror flicks or plan on marathoning the Dark Knight trilogy.
Before you start shipping, get a handle on your backyard theater's layout. Will you be projecting ten feet from the patio table to a stand-up screen, or all the way from the rear fence to the garage wall? Every projector has a different maximum size and throwing distance, so some will naturally suit your needs (and budget) better than others. Use a free resource like Projector Central's Projection Calculator Pro to map out a solid plan before you buy.
A great screen is never a bad thing, but if you have a smooth white (or very light gray) wall or a thick white bed sheet, you might not need a screen at all.
Maybe you lack a suitable surface, or you just won’t settle for anything less than the best image quality. Either way, a freestanding screen is your best bet for outdoor environments, which often call for a little flexibility (no one can stop the summer rain, after all). For an authentic drive-in experience, choose a screen with a 16:9 ratio and a heavy, stable frame. If you live among the city lights, make sure you grab a screen with a dark, opaque rear layer.
Thankfully for outdoor theater hosts, we live in the uber-convenient age of Bluetooth® speakers and powerful sound bars. Gone are the days when you had to haul out back-breaking floor speakers or get lost in the wiry pit of a 5.1 system—just sync your speaker to a Bluetooth-enabled projector and you're good to go. If that's not an option, make sure your projector and speaker system have compatible optical or AUX ports for easy setup. You could risk using a lithium battery-powered wireless speaker, but you'll probably want to keep your sound plugged in to the same surge protector that's powering your projector. No one wants to lose audio right before Darth Vader reveals that he’s Luke's father (and you'll probably also want some pre- and post-show jams).
An in-yard sound test is crucial before the big night, and it's a good idea to start at about 40 watts in terms of sound output. If possible, use a Bluetooth speaker system or a sound bar with a separate subwoofer to create multi-directional sound and allow the speakers to share the output—having a few speakers in the yard also helps ensure that your guests won't get stuck in an audio dead zone.
Though you can run a Blu-ray® player, Apple TV, Google Chromecast , or Amazon Fire TV through your projector, adding another device adds more wires, more power usage, and increased exposure to the elements.
Instead, consider streamlining your setup by choosing a smart, Wi-Fi-enabled projector. Some projectors feature smart TV-like interfaces that enable you to stream from apps like Netflix, Hulu, or HBO Go, or allow you to access your digital movie library from Google Play or Amazon Instant Video. Others play nicely with iOS or Android platforms to stream right from your phone or tablet.
In either case, you'll need a strong Wi-Fi connection to power all that movie magic, and to prevent buffering or disconnections. Choose a router and projector that both support the 802.11ac wireless standard, and be sure to connect the projector to the router on the 5 GHz network (which has significantly less interference). Look for AC or dual-band routers that offer additional features such as beamforming and MU-MIMO technology to further optimize for high-def video streaming. They’re essential if you’re using Apple TV, Amazon Fire, or Google Chromecast.
Before the big night, set your outdoor theater up for the best Wi-Fi connection. If there's a whole lot of space between your router and projector, add a range extender to the mix to bridge the gap. Some routers support device prioritizing for streaming, so check out the settings on your router and prioritize the projector for optimal connection speed. Speaking of speed, grab your tablet and visit OOKLA's Speedtest.net to get a gauge on the signal strength in your backyard. If you have a smart projector, you should be able to run the test straight from the projector’s browser app. Netflix suggests a speed of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) for Ultra HD quality streaming.
Technology is the foundation of an outdoor screening party, but don't forget what's really important. Even the smartest projector and the most cutting-edge screen can't provide your theater with atmosphere. Pepper your space with outdoor bean bag chairs and lounge chairs or festive inflatable furniture. Don’t forget key accessories like outdoor drink dispensers, or memorable touches like a popcorn bar filled with variety of sweet and savory seasonings. For lighting, remember to keep it soft so you don't wash out the projector's image—stylish string lights, sandbag candles, tiki torches, or mood-setting tea lights floating in a water fixture will do just fine. Oh, and don't forget to pick a crowd-pleasing movie. You'll need one of those, too.