A backyard movie night is the perfect way to enjoy these September nights with your family and friends. There’s nothing quite like making the most out of a crisp late summer / early fall evening with an outdoor movie night under the stars. Of course, not just any kind of outdoor movie night – you want to make sure you’re throwing an epic movie night complete with snacks, comfy seating, great decorations, a big screen, and your favorite films. And while it may seem tricky to pull off, I’ve put together a list of everything you need for a perfect movie night experience, stress-free. Your backyard movie night is sure to become a regular fall tradition, something your family and friends will remember long after the closing credits!
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The must-have elements for your backyard movie night
Several key considerations to look for when getting a projector for the backyard:
Lumens: The lumen rating indicates how much light the projector can output. The more light a projector can put out, the earlier in the evening you can start your movie, and the better it can cut through ambient light (like light from street lamps, light from the lanterns on your patio, etc.) You’ll want at a minimum at least 2,000 lumens. Everything higher than 2000 will be a big boost and as you get closer to 3,000+ lumens you really increase the light output of the projector which makes it possible to start the movie shortly after sunset instead of waiting another 30-40 minutes for it to get much darker.
Inputs: When you’re looking for a projector, make sure it has the kind of connection input on it that works with the device you want to use for running the movie (e.g. your laptop, a Blu-ray player, etc.). If they don’t match (say, a new laptop with HDMI and your old projector with VGA), make sure you get an adapter so everything plugs together properly.
Keystone and Lens Shift: Keystone correction is a way to correct the distortion of an image caused by projecting it onto an angled surface, as in the typical case of a projector sitting on a table, and looking upwards to the screen, the image is larger at the top than on the bottom.
Lower-end projectors have electronic keystoning and more expensive cinema-style projectors have physical controls which allow you to shift the actual lens to correct for image distortion. These features are important for outdoor projection since you’ll likely be putting the projector on a table of some sort and you’ll likely therefore need to adjust the image to fit as a square on the projection surface.
Maximum size and throw distance: A key consideration when making or buying a screen, is how big of an image your projector can project (maximum screen size), and how far away it from the screen the projector needs to be (throw distance) to accomplish that. If you want to project a 200″ image, for example, but the projector you plan on using needs 30 feet between the projector and the screen to accomplish that, then you’ll need to make sure you’ve got the space in your yard to accommodate that. Typically, unless you are in a pretty small backyard space, it won’t be a problem to worry about. To calculate your needed screen size based on your projector’s throw distance, take the width of your desired screen and multiply it by the first number in the throw ratio. Let’s say your screen is 10′ wide and your projector’s throw ratio is 1.3:1. Your calculation will look like this:
10 (width of screen) x 1.3 (throw ratio) = 13
So in this case, if you set your projector thirteen feet back from the screen, your picture will be perfectly illuminated and will easily fit the proportions of the screen.
Resolution: Resolution isn’t a big consideration for your projector. During a backyard movie night, you aren’t viewing a movie under optimum viewing conditions — there may be haze from the last light of sunset or some ambient light that will affect the purity of the projected image, the screen may have a couple of wrinkles in it, there could be shadows from your dog or kids running around.
Under these types of conditions, it will matter more that the image is bright and crisp (from your high lumen projector and from the keystone adjustment) than having the highest available resolution.
You’ll need to decide what will play your movies: a disc-based system like a DVD or Blu-ray player, your laptop, a dedicated media player like an Apple TV or Amazon Fire TV, etc. As long as it can play what you want to watch, it doesn’t really matter what you choose. If you plan to view media you have stored locally (eg purchased on iTunes, ripped from your DVD collection, streamed from Netflix) – a laptop is a great choice, as you can play a diverse range of stuff on it, it typically has an HDMI and/or VGA output for the projector, and it has a headphone jack ready to connect into somewhere. Furthermore, you can run all sorts of apps and you can easily do slideshows or pull up YouTube videos, and so on.
The sound system actually requires a bit more planning than the projector and screen, and will affect the experience more significantly. If the projection is a little bit washed out or the screen a little wrinkled, nobody will likely even notice. If the sound system is too weak, muffled, or hard to understand, the audience will lose interest quickly. The good news is that you don’t need to go for perfect audio, you just need good-enough audio. The less fussing and complicated wiring and hookup the better. The best arrangement I’ve found is to use a good Bluetooth speaker (Amazon aff. link) and pipe the sound wirelessly to the audience.
Projector, Media Player, and Sound System Recommendation
This summer, I found the ultimate solution to all of the above (projector, sound system, media player) in one, amazingly portable, super-convenient, and high-quality capsule: The Nebula Capsule projector (Amazon aff. link). It is so hassle-free and hits all the main elements of the above, it’s worth the investment. We have used it indoors as well to project onto our living room wall, the kids have watched movies from bed by projecting onto their ceiling, outside on our side house wall, and onto a outdoor projector screen — all have been spectacular. It offers the ultimate in convenience:
- built in 360-degree speakers that are powerful enough, but also can be augmented with a bigger bluetooth speaker;
- totally wireless so no need to figure out extension cords and power — just set it in your yard in the right spot and go
- ultimately portable – it’s literally the size of a soda can
- enables huge picture – I bought a 10′ screen and the Nebula was easily capable of filling it
- 4-hour + battery life, more than enough for pre-reel plus a movie
- Even though the lumens aren’t at 2000 like we talked about above, the picture is amazing – the first night we got ours, we couldn’t wait until dark, and watched it on an olive green wall in our living room, right at dusk – picture was great!
- built-in apps for Netflix, amazon prime video, youTube, fire stick connectivity, as well as HDMI input to hook up a laptop — so many options you will surely find a way to play your movie of interest
I was skeptical that one super-small projector could hit all of the above needs — it totally does, and does it incredibly well. I highly recommend it for your outdoor and even indoor movie-viewing.
Table for your equipment
Another consideration you’ll need to figure out is where you will put your sound system, projector, and media player, and any extension cords needed in order for them to reach needed power plugs. Typically a simple card or picnic table will work fine. Note: If you are investing in a nebula capsule, getting a tripod for it (Amazon aff. link) is a great addition, it helps you be able to adjust its positioning if it’s sitting on a slope, or if you want to point it at your room ceiling indoors, etc. Also I feel better having it screwed into the tripod to avoid any accidents like it getting knocked off the table..
Outdoor projection is extremely forgiving when it comes to screen quality, as the slight imperfections will likely not even get noticed given the excitement and fun of the event. Three considerations will help you decide on your outdoor projection screen: your budget, the size of picture you want, and whether you want front or rear projection.
Bed Sheet or Blackout Cloth
First in terms of screen budget. The cheapest way to go is simply putting out a bed sheet. It works just fine — you can iron it to get it as wrinkle-free as possible, and then secure eg to a wall or garage, or eaves, or stretched between two trees to keep it fairly immobile and under a slight bit of tension. You can simply tie the corners of the sheet to some twine and stretch the fabric out between some supports. Or you can clip the top of the sheet to your gutters or a swing set, and then clip the bottom of the sheet to a broom handle to give it some weight and tension.
The next step up, still keeping it cheap, is to purchase some blackout cloth from your local fabric store. It’s basically a cotton/vinyl blend that is intended to be stitched to the back of curtains to black out a room. The cloth itself, turns out to be perfect for a viewing surface — it’s a nice uniform white color and very sturdy. Two yards worth of blackout cloth is cheap and makes a great projector screen. Bungee cord and fasteners around a couple trees or the same approach as for the sheet (gutter and a broom) will work great. Note that with a sheet you’ll be able to do front or rear projection, but with the blackout cloth you can only do front projection.
Old Indoor Projection Screen
The next option is to find an old indoor projection screen and use that. You may be able to borrow one from the school or library, or look on craigslist for a cheap buy. The only consideration to think about with these is that often times the screens you find are a 4:3 aspect ratio instead of 16:9 (which is the wide screen format that today’s movies are typically projected), and you’ll need to figure out a way to safely hang up or weight down the stand so it doesn’t blow over. Typically these screens are front projection only as well. Ideally you’ll want to project in the same aspect ratio as your screen (ie projector that is 16:9 onto a screen that is 16:9).
The aspect ratio is simply the relative shape of the viewing area or screen based on a ratio of width to height. So a 4:3 aspect ratio means that for every 3 units of measure for height, there will be 4 equal units of measure for width.
Outdoor Projection Screen
Next on the budget spectrum would be purchasing an actual outdoor projection screen. If you’ll be doing backyard movies often, I would recommend purchasing a screen to make it as hassle-free for you as possible. You have two main options for an outdoor projection screen: inflatable and fixed-frame. For convenience and hassle-free setup I recommend fixed-frame. Inflatables can be quite bulky and thus take up quite a bit of space, they require electricity to power the blowers, and the blowers are fairly noisy so that you’ll likely hear the fan hum as you watch the movie.
Fixed frame models rely on a steel or composite frame to tension the screen and very sturdy construction, guy lines, and tie down stakes to keep the screen safely on the ground and not tipping over in any breeze. The biggest plus to fixed-frame screens is that there is no operation noise. It’s just a steel frame with a sturdy rip-stop nylon screen stretched tight over it.
The one that I chose for us is this one from Elite Screens (Amazon aff. link) — it is super-easy to set up and take down, is sturdy enough to withstand light breezes without even needing to stake, and the screen itself is sturdy, taut on the frame, and huge!
Screen Size consideration: All of these options come in varying sizes — you’ll just want to ensure that your screen can accomodate the size coming from your projector, and that you have enough throw distance in your yard to make it work.
Front or Rear screen projection consideration: Rear projection means that you’ll project the image from behind the screen rather than from in front of it, which can be handy in the backyard since no kids or guests will get in the way of the light, and you can hide the projector, cords, and everything out of the way. However, you also need enough space behind the screen to pull this off. Front projection is the most common and usually gives you the most flexibility in terms of seating space / screen arrangement in your yard.
Next you need to consider how you’ll handle seating for the movie. Blankets and pillows for the kids and lawn chairs for the adults is a great arrangement, something like this:
Low lounge chairs work great, with some crates as side tables for drinks/snacks. Some waterproof blankets and oversized cushions (Amazon aff. links) for the kids area will be perfect. These beach chairs or these inflatable chairs (Amazon aff. links) are a great option for those who may not want to sit right on the ground.
If you’re looking to get a bit more fancy and add your own touch, here are some instructions for building your own high-back seats.
Snacks and Drinks
You’ll want to plan your snacks and drinks — what is movie night without some great movie concession-like snacks! The right snacks can truly take your backyard movie night from good to great.
Popcorn. I recommend popcorn of some sort — movies and popcorn are just simply a go-together.
You can either do a huge crowd-sized batch of popcorn ahead of time, and serve it with some great popcorn boxes or bags and a scooper, or go a bit more involved and do a popcorn bar.
For your popcorn base, you can just go with microwave popcorn (I love PopSecret Homestyle (Amazon aff. link)), a stove-top popper (this is the one I have from Great Northern) (Amazon aff. link) , and at the high-end for frequent backyard movie nights, invest in a table-top popper. I can tell you that I bought this tabletop popper (Amazon aff. link) for our summer vacation, and it was a huge hit as well as super-easy and nice to have a quick big batch of popcorn ready for movie nights.
Make-ahead delicious flavored popcorn choices:
- 20 popcorn recipes | from lifehack.org
- 11 more popcorn recipes | from simplemost.com
- buffalo-style hot popcorn | from readyseteat.com
- rosemary parmesan popcorn | from fiveheartathome.com
- smores popcorn | from bombshellbling.com
- caramel apple popcorn | from houseofsprinkles.com
- patriotic popcorn (customize the colors to fit your theme) | from twosisterscrafting.com
- neapolitan popcorn | from somethingswanky.com
- 50+ best popcorn recipes | from somethingswanky.com
- popcorn cupcakes! | from drivenbydecor.com
Self-Serve Popcorn bar topping and treat ideas:
- popcorn seasoning mixes | from geniuskitchen.com
- popcorn bar recipes and ideas | from familyfreshmeals.com
- popcorn bar display ideas | from bigbearswife.com
- popcorn flavorings | from blog.annieselke.com
- personalized concession boxes you can make on your own | from alittletipsy.com
- kids movie trays (Amazon aff. link)
- shower caddie for snacks idea | from ourlittleblendedfamily.com
- Air Heads concession candies (Amazon aff. link)
- Sour Patch concession candies (Amazon aff. link)
- Junior Mints variety concession pack (Amazon aff. link)
- Red Vines 24-pack (Amazon aff. link)
- tubs for the popcorn and popcorn scoop (Amazon aff. links)
- popcorn serving bags and popcorn serving boxes (Amazon aff. links)
Here again you can choose an assortment of ready-to-serve, grab-n-go drinks:
- Izze sparkling juice (Amazon aff. link) is one of my favorites, special yet a tiny bit healthier than serving soda
- New York Seltzer vanilla cream soda (Amazon aff. link) is always a huge hit
- Flavored Pellegrino (Amazon aff. link) is a special fizzy treat
or go more involved with a drink bar:
- lemonade bar | from ohhappyday.com
- italian ice cream soda bar | from thirtyhandmadedays.com
- ice cream float bar | from oliviascuisine.com
- 18 food and drink bar ideas | from shetriedwhat.com
- wine spritzer bar (substitute juices for the wines if desired) | from homemadeandyummy.com
- mix-and-match garden cocktail bar (substitute soda for the spirits for kid-friendly) | from sugarandcharm.com
- hot chocolate bar | from createcozy.com
- sangria bar (including a non-alcoholic option) | from kojo-designs.com
- spiked tea and lemonade bar | from drinkbai.com
or whip up a big-batch signature drink:
- 17 boozy crockpot cocktails (for the adults!) | from buzzfeed.com
- 28 more slow-cooker drinks (great for those crisp fall nights!) | from tasteofhome.com
- homemade vitamin water | from soup addict.com
- melon berry splash juice | from courtneyssweets.com
- strawberry cucumber lime agua fresca | from houseofyumm.com
- 28 big-batch summer drinks | from buzzfeed.com
- best big-batch summer mocktails | from dreamingindiy.com
- big batch summer cocktails to keep you cool | from southernliving.com
- 6 infused water recipes | from eatingbirdfood.com
- 17 fruit-infused water recipes | from brit.co
- 25 refreshing summer cocktails | from seejennygo.com
Lighting and Safety
You will also want to think through some minimal lighting for your backyard movie night. Although you want to keep ambient lighting to a minimum to not distract from the movie or wash out the screen, you’ll want to plan some kind of minimal lighting so that people can move around, go get snacks, etc. without tripping.
Tiki torches, solar powered garden lanterns, and/or rope lighting (Amazon aff. links) are great options. These LED lights (Amazon aff. link) are amazing, and the best part is that they come with a rechargeable battery, so you can place them anywhere in your yard without worrying about power and extension cords. They also work as a lantern when you put them in the carrying bag that comes with the lights – and they last all night on one battery charge.
Glow sticks (Amazon aff. link) are also so fun and provide just a tiny bit of light – and make the night even more special for the kids.
These DIY coffee-can lanterns from inhabitat.com look great if you are handy and enterprising.
This glow-stick-based beverage tub idea from listotic.com is also an ingenious idea for offering just a bit of light at the snack table.
One last piece of advice to ensure you are the host of the most epic backyard movie night ever: a pre-reel. Your guests and family will be excited about the movie, the experience, and being outside together. Kids, especially, are going to be bouncing off the walls — they will be asking your every five minutes when it is time for the movie. Your best solution to keep the excitement but also help your guests await the movie is to run a pre-reel. It enables you to set everything up and make sure it’s connected and working properly, and also helps you gauge when it’s time to watch the movie.
I find that outdoor/nature clips are relaxing, don’t need sound, and are fun to watch on the outdoor screen. You can spool up the pre-reel video, let it roll, and as the twilight deepens, the picture becomes increasingly crisp and vivid. Eventually people are just naturally drawn to it, and without even having to announce anything, everyone becomes ready for the show.
Ideas for your pre-reel:
- Banff mountain film festival archives (click on the ‘World Tour Films from the Past’ link and explore the listings which will enumerate the actual websites with the films) — so many amazing outdoor adventures and footage from around the world to choose from.
- Monterey bay aquarium live web cams — choose from the coral reef cam, open sea cam, shark cam, penguin cam, and many others
- Various aquarium streams from explore.org
- Open Ocean from BBC Earth video
- Glider over Europe video
Signs and Decorations
Make the event special by decorating with some movie-themed signs and invitations.
- DIY movie marquis sign instructions | from thesitsgirls.com
- Invitation printable | from springtreetrampoline.com
- Ticket garland DIY decoration instructions | from bhg.com
- ‘Fresh popcorn’ printable labels | from thekitchn.com
- movie admission tickets (Amazon aff. link) for your movie ticket garland, or to exchange for concessions
- ‘Welcome to movie night’ printable 8×10 sign | from hwtm.com
- ‘Movie Night’ printable 4×6 signs | from hwtm.com
So many terrific movies out there perfect for backyard viewing. Here are some ideas to get you started.
Best Outdoor Movies:
- The Greatest Movies to Watch Outside list | from ranker.com
- Best Backyard Movies to watch on Netflix list | from outdoormoviehq.com
Best Family Movies:
- Top 50 movies to watch as a family | from timeout.com
- Family movies list | from commonsense media.org
- 25 family flicks to watch this summer | from babble.com
- Best summer movies organized by age group | from washingtonpost.com
- Best movies for tweens | from ranker.com
Best Underdog and Fall Movies:
- Underdog movies | from ranker.com
- Classic fall movies | from townandcountrymag.com
- Films to watch to make you feel autumn-y | from buzzfeed.com
Start your backyard movie tradition this weekend!
Here’s a downloadable checklist to get you planned and started.
In the end, what matters is not how fancy your projector is, or how many snacks you have — what matters is getting your family and friends together to spend some time outdoors, and building some remarkable and lasting memories.
Happy Backyard Movie-Watching!