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How to create your own backyard movie theater

Guillermo Rodriguez, of Huntington Station, talked Sunday about his backyard movie nights, where he can bring family and friends together while maintaining social distancing. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

When Guillermo Rodriguez goes to the theater, the available snacks can range from popcorn and grilled hot dogs and hamburgers to slices of roast suckling pig — and at some point, there may be dancing to music provided by a live DJ. Rodriguez can even show up for a movie in his pajamas if he wants to, because the big screen films are shown in his own backyard.

The 54-year-old Huntington Station resident has had a backyard movie theater for three years — something that authorities say can provide fun while staying at home and social distancing as the coronavirus continues to shutter or limit operations at traditional brick-and-mortar theaters. And while public drive-in theaters are making a comeback, the authorities add outdoor home theaters are “trending,” and there’s no reason for movie lovers to venture farther than their own houses for a drive-in-like experience. A home setup isn’t as expensive or difficult to put together as you might think.

The 'homemade' theater 

A home projector and screen can be homemade — literally, says Amanda Musro, a Gaithersburg, Maryland lifestyle and parenting expert who has made a video of the process. She says it takes only about 30 minutes and all you need are a few household items including a box, sheets, a cellphone, black spray paint, tape and a magnifying glass.

“As summer draws closer, people are spending more time outdoors and are looking for ways to modify or enhance some of their favorite past-times,” says Wayfair spokeswoman Alexa Battista. “One concept that’s trending is creating a movie theater in the backyard. The experience can be anything you want it to be — an over-the-top outing with colorful, summer cocktails and appetizers, or a laid-back movie night with the kids enjoying ice cream sundaes.”

Ken Muellers, landscape designer for Hicks Landscapes in Westbury, adds that having an outdoor home theater is a great way to safely have fun, give the kids something to do and spend time outside, especially during the pandemic. “With people stuck at home and looking to break up the routine of going from the couch to the fridge, having a movie night outdoors is such a welcome change,” Muellers says.” For kids it makes an event out of viewing while getting them out of the house for some fresh air.”

Rodriguez agrees.

“It’s fun for the family and you’re able to get together at home,” Rodriguez says of his home theater. He and his wife, Rosa, 61, have no children but he says the couple likes to have friends and their young nieces and nephews over to watch movies in the backyard. “Nowadays, there are a lot of options for buying equipment that aren’t too expensive.”

Rodriguez says his backyard theater started with showings of boxing events and then progressed to movies for kids and adults with DJ music sometimes provided by his brother-in-law.

“We have a lot of lawn chairs. The kids can sit on blankets … and we invite the neighbors,” he says. “We’ll have hot dogs and hamburgers for the kids and ask people to bring food and drinks.” He adds, “We have a pig roast once a year.”

Finding a projector

Muellers says that not only are backyard home theaters a great time, almost anyone who has a backyard can have one. He notes that projectors now come in a wide range of prices, quality and features but there are certain things to keep in mind. “You want to find a projector that works with your budget and is compatible with devices you want to use it with — cable box, computer, speakers, etcetera. Higher-end projectors will provide more lumens [brighter picture] that will overcome light pollution, and they will have more bells and whistles.”

While projection screens you can buy can range from as low as $200 and include blowup versions that inflate in minutes, Muellers adds that for a screen a blank wall, a fence, or a sheet will suffice and that a nice atmosphere for watching the movie can be created at low cost and little effort, including stadium seating.

Elevating the experience 

“You want to create a comfortable, cozy space for viewing. Think cushions, blankets, and a nice drink. Lounge chairs work great for laying back and taking in the show,” Mueller says. “Try to eliminate ambient light and noise that can detract from the experience. A quiet dark spot will work best.” He adds, “If you have a sloped lawn you have built-in stadium seating.”

Port Washington resident and co-founder of the Tilly virtual landscape design company tilly-design.com, Sarah Finazzo, says she and her husband are thinking of getting an outdoor home theater for their family. Their children are 3, 6 and 7.

“While the stay-at-home schedule is feeling normal these days, my kids are more and more missing playdates and activities with their friends — especially with the warmer weather,” Finazzo says. She says the couple plans to surprise them with an outdoor movie theater and that she looks forward to inviting friends over to enjoy it as well, “when the timing is appropriate.”

Finazzo adds that during the pandemic her family has enjoyed indoor movie nights on Fridays but that taking the experience outside will be exciting though not that hard to do, and it can give people a break from anxieties over the virus crisis.

“Outdoor theaters can be a nice way to socially distance, but still be together,” Finazzo says. “It’s a nice sense of normalcy in a very strange time.”

TIPS FOR CREATING YOUR BACKYARD MOVIE THEATER

Sources: Sarah Finazzo, co-founder of Tilly; Ken Muellers, landscape designer for Hicks Landscapes in Westbury; and Amanda Musro, a Gaithersburg, Maryland lifestyle and parenting expert.

— For seating, grab some chairs from your deck or use beach chairs or a blanket. A portable blow-up mattress can also be fun as well as rafts from a swimming pool covered with sheets or towels to create an instant comfy couch or chair for kids.

— Store snacks such as candy and popcorn and drinks in a simple shower caddy. It’s portable and keeps the mess at a minimum.

— Elevate the outdoor viewing experience with throw blankets and decorative outdoor pillows, a popcorn machine, colorful partyware and fun drinks. Use a fire pit to roast s’mores.

— Direct the sound to the movie audience. Keep it close with Bluetooth speakers or even headphones. If you are using your outdoor sound system, concentrate the sound to the speakers near the viewers, instead of the whole yard. If you have neighbors that are too close, invite them to join the party so they won’t complain about noise.

— Weather is always important. Make sure you pick a nice evening, not too hot or cold and not a day after a rainstorm when the grass will be soggy.

— Don’t forget the bug spray or citronella tiki torches or candles.

INSTRUCTIONS FOR CREATING A DIY MOVIE PROJECTOR AND SCREEN

Source: Amanda Musro, a Gaithersburg, Maryland lifestyle and parenting expert.

What you’ll need: A box, sheets, a cellphone, black spray paint, tape and a magnifying glass

For the projector, first paint the inside of your box with black spray paint and wait for it to dry (about 10 minutes). Then, cut a hole — this is where you’re going to put your magnifying glass. Make sure you seal it so that no light can get through — a black tape works best. Open the box, lock your cellphone screen and then place the phone inside the box upside down, leaning it against a roll of tape. You may have to move the cellphone forward or backward until the picture comes out on the screen.

For the screen, pin together a dark and white sheet and find a place to secure it.

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