The drive-in theater used to be a small town staple. It’s easy to see the appeal. There’s something magical about watching a movie out under the stars—and it’s even better if you never have to leave home to do it. An outdoor movie theater is easier to set up than you might expect. You can also do it relatively cheap. Depending on how elaborate you want to make your theater (and how much elbow grease you’re willing to invest), the projector could be your only significant purchase.
How to start
Before you start setting up your outdoor movie theater, you have to make some decisions about its design. Sit down with a pen and paper and ask yourself a few questions:
- How many people are you planning for? If you’re just planning to watch movies in the backyard with your family, you can get away with a smaller screen. Larger gatherings will need a larger screen to give everybody a good view. Most home theater projectors have a maximum screen size between 100” and 300” diagonal. (that’s around 8-12 feet tall). The more people you want the theater to accommodate, the further up that scale you’ll need to go. Try our screen size calculator!
- How much space do you have? The ideal viewing distance for a screen is from 1-1.5 times the size. You can see how that translates for common large projector screen sizes:
|Screen Size||Minimum Distance||Maximum Distance|
As you can see, you need quite a lot of space for a 300” screen. The flip side of this is you’ll have more room to accommodate more viewers.
- How portable do you want it to be? If you only plan to watch movies in your backyard, you can permanently install some of the features to make the set-up easier. If you’d rather have an outdoor theater you can take with you on camping excursions or family road trips, the screen’s set-up time and storage dimensions are likely to be more important.
Once you’ve answered those questions, you can get down to the nitty-gritty of putting together your home theater.
Step 1: Buy your projector
This is the key piece in your set-up. Buying the projector first lets you tailor the rest of the theater to suit it. Get the highest resolution you can afford—at minimum you’re looking for 1080p, but if you can afford 4K it’s worth it for outdoor viewing.
Since you’ll typically watch outdoor movies at night, brightness isn’t usually a significant concern for an outdoor theater projector. The exception to this is if you’ll be using it in an urban area with a lot of light pollution. In that case, look for a brightness of at least 3,000 ANSI lumens. Find our list of best outdoor movie projectors here.
Step 2: Set up your sound
No matter what projector you buy, the speakers built into it will definitely not be enough for an outdoor movie theater. For family movie nights and other small gatherings, an Echo Tap or similar Bluetooth speaker can be a great option. You can buy wireless dongles for projectors that don’t come with it on-board.
For bigger groups, you’ll likely want to buy a portable PA speaker. You can get one for around $50-$100 that’s a high enough quality for outdoor movie nights. If the theater is semi-permanent, you’ll likely find it worth the investment to buy and install waterproof speakers around your yard. They’re a bit pricier than portable speakers but can better replicate the surround sound experience. You can also use them to play music when you entertain or work in the yard if that helps you justify the expense.
Step 3: Buy or make your screen
If your house is white, you may have just the wall already in mind. If not, a plain white sheet hung from a roof, clothesline, or tree branch can make a perfectly serviceable (and absolutely free) screen for family movie nights.
If you want to take things a step further, you can buy a variety of outdoor screens. These come in two basic forms: inflatable and metal frame. Both have pros and cons. If you plan to take it with you on the road, make sure it will fit comfortably in your vehicle. (Find our outdoor projector screens buying guide here).
Permanent backyard movie theaters are a great place to take advantage of projector paint. You can turn any wall into an ideal projector, or construct a weather-proof screen made of wood, metal, or plastic. Projector paint can be applied to basically any material, so it opens up a lot of creative possibilities.
Step 4: Figure out your content
If your Wi-Fi network stretches to your backyard, the easiest option is a streaming stick plugged into the HDMI port of the projector. Some projectors come with USB ports, letting you watch movies straight from a portable drive—another great option for movie watching on the go.
Different projectors offer different connection options, and that will obviously influence where you get your content. For portability, the best option is often to connect the projector to a laptop with an HDMI cable (our detailed instructions on how to do it can be found here). This frees you to watch movies outside of Wi-Fi range since you can download them directly to the computer.
For the tech geeks out there, a Raspberry Pi can make a delightfully portable media storage box. These little computers cost less than $50, are smaller than a cell phone, and can be configured into dedicated media players relatively easily. You can find how-to guides online if you want to go this route.
Step 5: Give it power
For backyard movie theater, this step’s easy: run an extension cord from the nearest outlet and you’re good to go. If you want to be free to watch movies anywhere, though, it can get a bit more complicated.
Though you can find battery-powered projectors, it’s more likely you’ll need to provide a power source. Some inflatable screens, content sources, and speakers will need juice, too. The easiest option is a portable generator. They can often be both rented and purchased from home improvement stores. Look for the quietest one you can find, so the sound of the engine doesn’t interfere with your movie-watching experience.
Putting it all together
Building your own outdoor movie theater can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. The only major expense is the projector itself. For everything else, creative repurposing of things you already have can help keep you within your budget.
Don’t forget to add the touches that make your outdoor theater your own. Adding a popcorn maker to your grill set-up can transform it into a concession stand. There are so many exciting ways you can make an outdoor theater your new favorite summer tradition. Hopefully, this guide has inspired you to build your own!