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Missing the movies? Here's everything you need to create an outdoor theater in the backyard

The backyard can be your personal outdoor cinema with the right equipment

By Omar L. Gallaga
Special to the American-Statesman
The Bullard family of Austin use an existing gray wall on their house to project movies and to play games outdoors. They've hosted some socially distanced screenings with friends during the pandemic, too.

In these continuing pandemic times, it’s nice to blow someone’s mind with something they didn’t know was possible.

For Michael Bullard, a commercial real estate broker who lives in Bouldin Creek, it was blowing the minds of his two kids, ages 4 and 6, with an outdoor projector he borrowed from a friend.

“They thought it was the coolest thing. ‘You can watch movies outside?’” he said.

More:Entertainment venues could finally apply for COVID-19 relief money. Then the website shut down.

Once the family also learned they could watch projected movies in their backyard in another enhanced way, it sealed the deal for a projector purchase.

“Once we realized you could watch a movie from the hot tub, we’re like, ‘I’m never going inside again,’“ he said.

Bullard and his wife, Becky Bullard, went from a loaner projector to a high-end projector with a lot of lumens (the measure of how strong the light source is on the device) that cost about $2,500.

While it could be viewed as an extravagance, Bullard says he saved a lot of money by simply using the gray-painted back wall of the house as a screen instead of installing a big white projector screen. And he didn’t have to hire a contractor to set up a permanent spot for the projector; he just brings it outside and plugs it in whenever it’s needed.

The shady backyard, which has an overhang from the house, allows the family to project movies and play Nintendo Switch and Wii games during the day. It’s allowed the Bullards to invite friends and neighbors over for socially distanced entertainment on a 20-foot screen.

“We’ve done that quite a bit,” Bullard said. “It’s the only way to see our friends, is the backyard. It’s been worth every penny for that.”

TVs are another option

Setting up your own outdoor projector to enjoy some COVID-era social time can be a great solution for weekend movie nights, especially with the mild weather in Central Texas, but home-theater experts advise caution and some research before you invest in a such a system.

For one thing, not every home is lucky enough to have shade, an accommodating wall that can serve as a screen or even the kind of Wi-Fi access that will make it a seamless experience.

Sometimes people forget the most basic of requirements when setting up such a system, says Travis Jordan, owner of AV Connect in Austin.

“People seem to forget there’s no magic power receptacle,” he said.

Leave money in the budget for extra-long extension cords if that’s the case.

According to Consumer Reports, there are budget mini projectors that offer a non-4K image for under $500 as well, depending on the size of the image being projected and in what conditions it’ll be used.

For 4K viewing, smart-TV options and bigger-sized viewing, projectors can cost much more.

Surprisingly, several local AV shops said that there hasn’t been huge demand for outdoor projectors, but there has been a pandemic-inspired increase in home theater upgrades in general and some families are opting for outdoor large-screen TVs instead, another option if a projector isn’t going to work out.

Jordan says he’s sold three of Samsung’s Terrace TVs, which are weatherproof, 4K high-brightness screens that sell for about $3,500-$6,500 in sizes from 55 inches to 75 inches. Like SunBrite, another brand of outdoor televisions, Terrace TVs are waterproof, offer anti-glare screens and are safety rated for outdoor use.

Projecting with confidence

But if projecting on an even bigger screen is the dream, it’s attainable with a little research and some planning.

Arash Zafarnia, an Austin entrepreneur who owns SantaSnaps.com (for all your personalized Santa Claus video needs), said he purchased an outdoor projector a few years ago for the Super Bowl and has enjoyed it ever since.

“It’s a good reason to get outside, catch some fresh air and have some friends over,” he said. When we talked, he had been planning a socially distanced screening of “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” Zafarnia says he recommends the Elite Screens Yard Master 2, a 120-inch projector screen that sells for about $200 that can be packed into a flat carrying bag.

“It’s the right size if you don’t want a monstrosity but a viewing experience better than a flat-screen inside,” he said.

He recommends securing the screen well to avoid anybody being accidentally injured. There’s also audio to consider: Connecting a projector to a good outdoor speaker, whether it’s via Bluetooth (if the projector supports that) or audio cables requires a little planning ahead.

Any projector master must know where the content will be coming from. Are you connecting a device like an Amazon Fire Stick to access Netflix and other streaming TV? Will you need a cable box with a cable long enough to reach back to the house? Is there a 4K Blu-ray player that needs to be lugged outside as well? Make sure there are enough power outlets and a strong enough internet connection to keep the movie night from being interrupted.

If all of these tasks seem like a huge headache, consider getting a professional home-theater installer involved. They can set up a safe, reliable system that is protected from the elements if that’s in the scope of your budget.

Seats, shade and bug spray

Unless you have lots of shade, plan to start watching around dusk, and keep an eye on the weather. Don’t let a screening get rained out and have plenty of blankets on hand if it’s going to be a cooler evening (summer screenings? Bug spray).

Most importantly, consider seating. Blankets or towels on the ground might be fine, but Zafarnia says comfortable seating is a must if you’re going to be doing this regularly.

Bullard says that having his kids play motion-controlled games on his old Nintendo Wii in front of a giant screen and having family snuggle-up movie time with movies like “Trolls World Tour” has been a welcome diversion.

“Anything that can keep people sane and happy as a family in quarantine is worth it,” he said.

Bullard says he’s happy to keep lugging out the projector anytime there’s not bad weather and he plans to make it a permanent part of the family’s entertaining.

“In the pre-COVID times, I could put a 100 people in my backyard all sitting on top of each other and watch whatever they wanted,” he said. “Maybe when we get the vaccine, we’ll do that.”