This is How You Create a Backyard Movie Theater

I don’t know when I’ll get back to the movies. This is the next best thing

The movie theater was my happy place. I can remember being indescribably happy watching Rocky for the first time, being transported by Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and being overwhelmed by the 70mm version of Empire Strikes Back. My idea of a vacation is seeing as many movies in a theater as possible before it’s time to return to work.

Home theater in yard
Lifewire / Hilary Allison 

Yet, even before the pandemic, my movie-going habits had changed. Unruly crowds, poor upkeep, and tiny screens were sapping my enjoyment, to say nothing of sky-rocketing ticket prices and fewer seats to accommodate luxury recliner layouts.

If I was lucky, we saw two movies a month in theaters. Then the pandemic hit and now I don’t know if I’ll ever go back.

My wife, who grudgingly accompanies me to the movies, suggested that we look for at-home ways to recreate the theater experience, which is how our backyard drive-in theater was born.

Going to the movies
Remember when we used to "go to the movies"?. Mr. Bean

The Big Picture

During our initial conversations about a backyard home theater setup, I told my wife that we’d need a weatherproof, tiny, ultra-powerful, and smart projector, one that could cost $1,000 or more. This temporarily killed the idea and, if I’m being honest, I think that was my objective. In my mind, a backyard simply isn’t a theater and no amount of equipment or gumption would make it so.

However, as the pandemic continued and I started to come to terms with the fact that the in-theater movie experience, if not dead, would remain on-pause for months to come, I decided it was time to get real about the home drive-in idea.

It occurred to me that since this had all been my wife’s idea, I could make it a birthday present, all while gaining the personal benefit of launching the kind of tech project I love.

Projector
My backyard drive-in system.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Finding the Right Projector

I realized that I was overthinking things on a projector. So what if it wasn’t small? What mattered here was screen resolution, brightness, number and type of ports, ease of use, and overall quality.

There are, I noticed, quite a few projectors that promise HD quality, but deliver considerably lower resolution (480p). I knew that I didn’t need 4K, but 1080p, the resolution of most of the TVs in my house, was a must.

I wanted at least one HDMI input, a built-in speaker, and compatibility with popular streaming hardware.

To recreate the drive-in experience in my backyard, the projector needed above-average brightness and contrast ratio and, obviously, the ability to generate a very large image. 

If you search for projectors on Amazon, you will see more than a few from Chinese manufacturer GooDee. Prior to starting this project, I’d never heard of them and am a little allergic to no-name brands, but the reviews for the GooDee BL98, which matched virtually all my requirements, were good. It has a 5000:1 contrast ratio, can project up to a 300-inch screen with full 1920x1080 resolution, has 2 HDMI ports, a built-in speaker, and support for a variety of streaming devices.

GooDee also claims more brightness than other, similarly priced models, but never actually lists the lumens. Keystone and focus are also manual operations. More expensive models do these automatically. It’s also a little larger (roughly 12-inches x 10-inches x 5 inches) and heavier (almost 6 pounds) than a tiny, lightweight model from, say, Epson, but I figured it would be up for the job. Also, it costs just $229.

Projector and Roku
The Roku Premiere hooked up to the GooDee Projector. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Part two of my masterplan for a backyard theater was a streaming box. In my home I have a few Amazon Fire TVs, Apple TVs and, more recently, Rokus, which I’ve come to love, especially since I got my first TCL 4K Roku TV. I like the remote (which supports voice commands), the simple interface, and generous support for my favorite streaming services.

I settled on a $40 Roku Premiere. The 4K support is overkill but I like the diminutive size, and it’s what I had on hand from another project.

You can’t have a home drive-in theater without a screen, and I found a lot of options on Amazon, my favorite being an inflatable screen that didn't fit in my pint-sized backyard. I decided that I didn’t want anything that included poles or framing. What I needed was a screen that could hang anywhere and fold away like a sheet when I was done. I started looking at the myriad fabric-like hanging options, but when I went to order an $11 model, I found that it, and essentially all models like it, wouldn’t arrive until August.

I figured we could use a white sheet until my proper screen arrived.

The last crucial piece of the outdoor theater puzzle is my Wi-Fi. Years ago I installed an Eero wireless mesh network system. It spreads 5Ghz Wi-Fi throughout my home and, more important for this moment, out into my backyard.

Outdoor theater
Did you think I was kidding about the sheet? And, yes, I need to trim that tree.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

The Great Outdoors

My wife found a large, clean, white sheet and I selected the front of my shed as the screen side of my backyard drive-in.

I found four heavy-duty clips and cinched the top corners to our two plant hangers (which currently lack plants) but struggled with how to hold down the bottom of the sheet. We tried a couple of heavy outdoor bug candles, rocks, and then a brick. It was all only partially successful. I think we might need to sew a heavy pole onto the bottom end to stop all the flapping. Also, here’s another pro-tip I missed: Iron the sheet before you hang it.

I placed the projector and Roku on 2ft-tall glass-topped outdoor table, ran my extension to a power strip, and plugged everything in. It was still early enough in the day that no projector, no matter how bright, could overcome the sunlight. I struggled to see even a glimmer of the screen on my billowing white sheet.

And then the rain came.

That’s right, just as we were about to enjoy our first home drive-in movie, mother nature intervened, and knowing that none of my equipment was even marginally weatherproof, I packed up the outdoor theater as quickly as I set it up.

Take Two

24 hours later, the skies cleared, and I reset my backyard theater. I placed the projector roughly 12 feet from my “screen,” positioned a pair of reclining lawn chairs next to it, and then waited for the sun to set.

And waited.

The wait brought back childhood memories of drives-ins from the '70s. Half the fun for 7-year-old me was romping on the playground for hours until it got just dark enough for the movie to start. With no swings or seesaws in sight, my wife and I sprayed some Off on our arms and then stared at our phones.

Finally, the sun set, and it was dark enough to make out the roughly 100-inch screen. I made a few more adjustments to the focus and keystone, and to the projector’s thumbscrew height adjuster (I also had to put the projector on top of another box to raise it another 12 inches).

Home theater and Arnold
The screen looks small in this photo, but it was actually larger than even the 65-inch screen I have in house. If I move the projector back I can make it much larger. I need a bigger screen (and shed).  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

For our first backyard theater showing, we chose the original Terminator on Netflix. Even on my slightly wavy sheet/screen, the picture looked sharp, colorful, and bright. My son said he could see it clearly from his second-story bedroom.

 A few things we quickly learned:

  • The speaker is on one side of the projector and we sat on the other side (oops). My GooDee projector does have a standard 3.5mm headphone jack port (no Bluetooth support) and I own a splitter in case my wife and I decide to listen in private.
  • Airplanes can easily drown out the audio.
  • Loud sounds like gun shots, screams, and explosions, can carry into your neighbor’s yard.
  • Bugs like a movie screen, too.

So What

Whatever you buy will have to be stored after each use. Make sure you have the room and, if you plan to store it outside, be sure you have some weatherproof containers and a lock for your shed or storage bin.

Watching movies in my backyard is fun (next time I’ll make popcorn). It felt like camping in a drive-in theater. However, it may never compare to watching a movie in a darkened theater on 30-ft. screen. I still look forward to returning to my happy place.