Advice, staff picks, mythbusting, and more. Let us help you.
How to DIY Your Own Outdoor Movie Theater
There’s nothing quite like watching a movie on a big screen, but it’s a shame to squander those glorious summer evenings hanging out indoors. Why not enjoy the best of both worlds by creating your own cinema experience in the comfort and privacy of your backyard, if you have one.
Building your own outdoor movie theater is far easier than it sounds, and can be easily scaled to suit your budget—from a simple projector/sheet combo to a full-fledged theater, with a big outdoor screen and speakers to really up the video and audio quality.
Here’s a look at what products you’ll need for your outdoor theater, along with some tips on how to make everything work together.
Though it’s possible to haul your TV outside for the occasional movie night, it’s not going to have the “wow” factor of a big-screen projection system. Modern home theater projectors offer excellent picture quality, and usually a far brighter image than you’d expect—not bright enough to watch outside during the day, mind you, but ample for a movie night under the stars.
Most of the projector recommendations from our guide to the best budget projector for a home theater will also work in an outdoor setting. (Not permanently, of course. You don’t want to leave any electronics outside that aren’t designed to live there.) They’re small and light enough to carry outside and set on a small table, yet they put out enough light to produce a large image. Want a 100-inch-diagonal screen? No problem. Consider first our top pick, the BenQ HT2060, which has good light output, wonderfully accurate color, and a respectably robust built-in speaker.
The one thing to think about with the HT2060 is that you’ll need at least 10 feet of space between the projector and the screen to create a 100-inch image. If your backyard is shaped or sized in a way that this won’t work, the BenQ HT2150ST uses a short-throw lens that lets you place it as close as 4.9 feet away from your screen to create a 100-inch image.
If you want something a little smaller, with a more rugged and portable design, we like the BenQ GS50. This little projector is designed for outdoor use: It is splash- and drop-resistant, it has a USB-C port to directly connect a mobile device for media playback, and it has a built-in battery with a longer life than the other portable mini projectors we’ve tested. It has a decent built-in speaker, supports Bluetooth audio output, and even comes with some built-in streaming apps, so there’s no need to attach a separate media player.
While it’s fairly bright for a portable projector, the GS50 is significantly dimmer than the other BenQ projectors, which means you won’t be able to get nearly as large of an image—and the overall image contrast isn't as good. But if you’re looking for the simplest option, the GS50 is your best bet.
There are less expensive projectors on the market that will do for the occasional outdoor movie night, but understand that they may not be as bright or they may just have worse image quality than our picks—so they aren’t going to look as good when showing movies on a large screen.
A projector screen (or not)
The simplest way to watch an outdoor movie is, of course, to just shine the projected image on a wall of your house, but we don’t recommend this approach. There’s a reason why movie screens are so smooth. You’ll be able to see the texture and surface of the “screen” material no matter how bright the projector is. So if you’ve got wood shingles, you’ll see those shingles all colorfully lit by your movie. The same is true with stucco, or any other surface. The film’s colors will also shift with those of the wall. This option is certainly simple (and free), but you can do better.
A big white sheet is the most affordable solution that can still give you a decent image. The texture issue mentioned above can still be a concern, but it’s less so if you keep the sheet wrinkle free. Even a slight breeze will cause your screen to move, though, so for the best, least-distracting experience, you’ll want to pull the material as taut as possible when attaching it to a wall or homemade frame. We got surprisingly good performance from these Target sheets when we tested them for our guide to outdoor movie screens.
If you want the best image out of whatever projector you choose, you should get an actual outdoor screen. We like the Elite Screens Yard Master Plus, which comes with a sturdy frame and ground stakes so it won’t blow over if your backyard gets a little windy. The Yard Master Plus is available in sizes ranging from 100 to 200 inches (in the 16:9 shape) and includes a storage/carrying bag.
What are you going to watch? Or, more importantly, how are you going to watch it? Long gone are the days when you needed to bring a DVD or Blu-ray player out to the yard along with the projector. I mean, you could still do that for sure, but there are easier options.
A streaming stick, such as the Roku or Amazon Fire TV, connects directly to the HDMI input on the projector, draws power from the projector’s USB connection, and uses your home’s Wi-Fi to stream movies from the ol’ interwebs. Just make sure your projector has a powered USB port that supplies at least 1 amp of output. Older projectors might have the USB port but may not be able to provide enough power. In that case, you’ll need to supply external power to the streaming stick.
The BenQ GS50 mentioned above makes this part simpler, since some streaming apps are already built in. You just need a Wi-Fi connection strong enough to reach your backyard.
A better speaker
You probably want to be able to hear your movie, too. Technically, you can use the projector’s built-in speaker. As we mentioned above, the one built into the BenQ HT2060 has solid dynamic ability. If we’re talking about a few people seated close to the projector, that internal speaker might be fine. But if you’ve got a big yard or any kind of background noise (quiet, kids!), it could be hard to hear. Besides, if you’ve got a big screen, wouldn’t it be great to have big sound to go with it?
The easiest way to add a better speaker is to use the projector’s analog audio output, which lets you connect any speaker that has an analog input. Many Bluetooth speakers have this, as do most soundbars and, really, just about any speaker system. You’ll need an audio cable to connect the two, either a 3.5-mm–to–3.5-mm stereo cable or a 3.5-mm–to–RCA cable.
If you want (or need) to go wireless instead, you’ll have to use Bluetooth. A growing number of projectors (including the BenQ GS50) are adding a built-in Bluetooth connection to easily send the audio to a higher-quality Bluetooth speaker. However, this approach may create a noticeable lip-sync issue, wherein you see something happen on screen and hear it through the speaker an instant later. This is a common Bluetooth issue, but for an outdoor movie night it’s probably not a dealbreaker.
You also can connect a Bluetooth speaker to a streaming stick, if you’re using one. With a Roku, you can make this connection via the Roku mobile app on your phone. It’s a little convoluted, so stick with me (pun intended): You connect the Roku app to your Roku stick, which is easy as long as you’re on the same Wi-Fi network. You then connect the Bluetooth speaker to your phone or tablet. The audio from the streaming content will go through your phone to the Bluetooth speaker. If you have an Amazon Fire TV Stick, you can connect directly—just go to the settings in the main menu.
If you’re not using a Roku or an Amazon stick—or another source device that has Bluetooth, like a laptop—another wireless option is a Bluetooth transmitter. These devices connect to the audio output of the projector or source and send the audio wirelessly to your Bluetooth speaker, just like if the source had built-in Bluetooth.
Some helpful accessories
The items above are the core components you’ll need for your outdoor cinema extravaganza. Depending on your house, yard, and so on, you might require a few other things to get everything up and running.
Extension cords are, of course, rather vital to your endeavor. Some cords have multiple outlets at the end, letting you run just one cable while still being able to plug in numerous devices. You could also get a power strip.