August 18, 2012

Backyard Movies on a Budget

The classic American drive-in
Now Playing: Anything you want... in your backyard

Pros: A great way to get together with family and friends and feed your movie addiction at the same time; simple set-up
Con: You're always at the mercy of the weather (but indoors isn't nearly as much fun)

My earliest movie memory (actually, one of my earliest memories period) is of family movie night at the drive-in-- putting on my footie pajamas and piling into the old Studebaker wagon to go see a double-feature. To save a buck, Mom made the popcorn at home. The very first movie I remember seeing was Disney's Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959) with pre-Bond Sean Connery. I was absolutely terrified when the banshee appeared, and hid underneath the dashboard until my parents gave me the all-clear. Then the Death Coach appeared, and I dove down under the dashboard again. I didn't come out again until we got home.

(Years later, Darby O'Gill's Death Coach would get me a second time. Having somehow forgotten how terrifying the movie was to me at the age of three, I unwisely showed it to my stepkids, who were in elementary school. Later that night as I was watching TV, I jumped off the couch at the sound of a high-pitched scream coming from upstairs-- my step-daughter dreamt that the Death Coach was coming for her…)

At any rate, I survived my first encounter with supernatural forces at the drive-in, and have had a fondness for scary movies and drive-ins ever since (fortunately for her, my step-daughter has decidedly more conventional tastes in movies.) Thanks to the internet and DVD, I can indulge my tastes for vintage scary movies with ease. Drive-ins are another matter. According to, there are less than 400 drive-ins still operating in the U.S., down from a high of between 4000 and 5000 in 1958.

That's a shame. Describing the drive-in experience to someone who's never been is like channeling Dana Carvey as the Grumpy Old Man: "We'd pile into rickety old cars, and half of us would be in the trunk to avoid paying for a ticket; when we got there, the place smelled like exhaust fumes and stale popcorn; half the time it would rain, and when it wasn't raining, you tried to watch the movie through bug-splattered windshields; and the sound that came out of the clunky metal speaker made your old portable record-player seem like a state-of-the-art system in comparison… but we LIKED IT!"  Regardless of the downsides, there's just something satisfyingly communal about watching movies under open skies that even the best, up-to-date indoor theaters can't match.

I haven't been to a drive-in in a long, long time, but recently it occurred to me that if I couldn't easily get to a drive-in anymore, I could at least bring a tiny bit of the open-air, drive-in experience home. One evening in the early spring, I was relaxing on my back deck when it dawned on me that I already had the basics of a pretty good backyard, "big screen" movie set-up-- particularly the L-shaped deck with plenty of room for chairs and snack tables facing a small, flat grassy area that would be perfect for setting up a screen.

As you might expect, there's quite a bit of information about backyard movie set-ups on the net. You can go big and expensive, or relatively cheap (especially if you make the screen yourself). I decided on a middle-ground, moderately budget-conscious approach: no cheap DIY bedsheet screen, but no high-end equipment either.

I already had an extra DVD player that I had recently replaced with Blu-Ray. I researched projectors, and found a budget-friendly ViewSonic model, which, while aimed at the business/school presentation market, got high marks from home theater buffs without a lot of $$ to throw around (and supported 720p and 1080i HD with HDMI). I was just about to make my own screen with PVC pipe and blacking material from the local fabrics store, when by chance I found a very affordable portable, pull-up screen (again, aimed at the business presentation market, but perfectly suitable for my purposes). I bought a cheap tiered metal shelf for the projector and DVD player and an HDMI cable to hook the two together. For big sound in a small package, I bought the JBL Creature, which, when not being used for backyard movies, is hooked up to my computer (the system looks like it came straight out of a B sci-fi movie). All in all, a pretty decent home theater package on a moderate budget.

Here are the damages:
  • ViewSonic PJD5133 projector: $350
  • Standard upconverting DVD projector: $0 (if you've already got one to spare) to $70 (more of course if you go Blu-Ray)
  • 80" free-standing, pull-up projector: $145
  • JBL "Creature" speaker system: $65
  • Two-tiered shelf for DVD & projector: $20
  • Other incidentals (HDMI cable, sound system Y adapter, powerstrip): $40 - $60
  • Watching backyard movies under a cloudless, starry sky: Priceless
  • Total: at most, a little over $700 (less if you've already got some of the stuff on hand or build your own screen)
I've already had a couple of successful movie nights this summer, and hope to do at least one more this season. I also plan to run movies on my front deck this Halloween (weather permitting).

Backyard movie equipment set-up
The equipment is super-easy to set-up and take down, and
can be stored in closet when not in use.

Connections are simple
Connections are simple: HDMI cable between player and projector, and
Y adapter from the player to the "Creature" sound system.

2 backyard movie fans
Two backyard movie fans wait patiently for the show to begin.

Now playing in the backyard: Fright Night (the original)
Now playing in the backyard: Fright Night (the original). The screen can be secured with
bungies, rope or wire for added stability in fairly windy conditions.