Lights … Cameras … Insect Repellent? How To Build Your Own Outdoor Movie Theater

Geek Culture


All Images: Dave Banks

Last month, I was sorting through the mail after work. Amid the plastic windowed envelopes offering lower interest rates on credit cards and thick glossy catalogs touting everything from a ladder to help an arthritic dog climb onto your bed to a $6,000 coyote skin throw rug, I found an item that really grabbed my attention, a Backyard Outdoor Theater System. The combination consisted of a projector/dvd combo, two speakers and a 12′ x 6′ screen.

I thought about it. Lazy summer evenings, sitting back and sipping a cool beverage, while the kids ran around catching fireflies and watching a Hollywood blockbuster on a very big screen. These are the moments when vivid, lifetime memories are made. But then I saw the price tag: $3,499. The dream of outdoor movie watching began to make a hasty retreat.

But before throwing in the towel, I thought I’d explore the idea a little further. What about buying the components on my own, surely there would be some savings there. Sure enough, the catalog listed each component’s maker. So a quick Google search turned up a buy-it-yourself price of $218 for the speakers, $900 for the combo dvd player/projector and $1149 for the collapsible screen. It was still more than two grand. For that price, I could practically take the family to Sundance and watch a week of movies.

It was time to get creative.

My company had a projector that – with a little work – could be repurposed for an outdoor event (and it had nearly 1,000 more lumens than the piddly projector in the catalog). The speakers could be borrowed from an audiophile friend and I dusted off an old receiver to drive the sound. Finally, the dvd player was disconnected from the kitchen tv to contribute to the cause.

screenscreenWith the audio and visual requirements resolved, I was still stuck with finding a simple solution for the most expensive element of the equation, the screen. There were tons of great ideas at the forums, but nothing that met my specific needs. I wanted a screen that was not only temporary, but lightweight enough to be portable and storable. I also wanted something inexpensive.

After much deliberation on materials and design, I settled on a 5′ x 9′ screen constructed of blackout cloth stretched over a 1.5″ PVC frame. Blackout cloth was a great solution, offering nearly-perfect color and texture for viewing movies.

I put together a rough drawing and headed to the hardware store for parts. With the help of a miter saw, I was able to cut and glue all of the PVC in a single Saturday afternoon. (While I love the flexibility and ease that PVC offers, the headaches that resulted from using the pungent PVC cement gave me renewed respect for plumbers everywhere … not that I didn’t before.)

33The blackout cloth had to be doubled over and sewed along the edges for reinforcement. Grommets were added every foot to connect the fabric to the frame. This was the one piece of the project I had outsourced, the week before, to a local awning company. I laid the cloth over the frame and attached it with zip ties. These allowed for fine adjustments to get the fabric as centered as possible.

To support the frame, I sunk three-foot sections of 2″ PVC in concrete in three 5 gallon buckets. After the concrete dried, I was able to slide the screen frame’s three 1.5″ PVC legs deep into the 2″ pipes for support. A couple of eye bolts at the top sides of the frame allowed the screen to be secured with rope and stakes to prevent it from forward and backward movement in the event of a breeze. With that, the screen was done.

To be on the safe side, we tested the setup to make sure everything worked together and then we were ready. We put out some invitations to the neighborhood and this past Friday, my kids and most of neighborhood kicked off the summer by sipping lemonade, eating popcorn and watching Indiana Jones try to discover the Ark of the Covenant. Everyone enjoyed the evening immensely and we are already looking forward to our second screening — most likely Episode Four.

The material and cost list for the screen follows:

  • (3) five gallon buckets @ $2.78 ea = $8.34
  • (2) sacks Sakrete @ $4.37 = $8.74
  • (1) jar PVC cement = $3.76
  • (2) eye bolts @ $0.52 = $1.04
  • (4) anchor stakes @ 2.16 ea = $8.64
  • (7) 10′ sections 1.5″ PVC pipe @ $3.16 ea = $22.12
  • (1) 10′ section 2″ PVC pipe = $4.18
  • (1) bag, 100 ct 14″ zip tie = $9.87
  • (1) 100′ nylon rope = $6.24
  • (8) 1.5″ wye fittings @ $2.23 ea = $17.84
  • (2) 1.5″ 90 degree elbows @ $0.61 ea = $1.22
  • (1) 1.5″ cross fitting = $2.63
  • (2) 1.5″ tee fittings @ $1.57 ea = $3.14
  • (1) 5′ x 9′ piece of blackout cloth $24.99

Total material costs: $122.75

44Lessons learned: If I had the skill (and the machinery), I would have done the cloth reinforcement & grommet work myself or found a friend or relative who could have done it for me. Working with a self-imposed deadline of Memorial Day weekend, I bit the bullet and had a local awning company do the work for me. That added an additional $125 to the overall cost, for a grand total of $247.75. I’m not happy about that, but sometimes there isn’t much of a choice. And it’s still much better than $1149.

Also, if I were to make the frame again, I would add 45 degree fittings at every point of interior frame support. The screen sits too tautly on the frame and the supports show through the canvas. (Fortunately, it’s completely unnoticeable while a movie is showing.) But aesthetically it would look better if the supports were less visible. Kicking them back a couple inches with 45º fittings would likely resolve that problem.

Finally, fearing the flexibility of the frame’s weight, I added a center support midway through construction. I’m not sure if this was entirely necessary, but sometimes it pays to be on the safe side.

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