In the old days, eccentric millionaires would often build private movie theaters. They would find a corner of their mansion and have a projection room installed, along with comfy seats and perhaps a wet bar. To watch a 35mm movie alone, or with a handful of friends, was considered the height of decadence.
Most of us have been content to visit the cineplex and eat popcorn among a hundred strangers. This is one of the great modern pastimes: Watching a moving picture on the big screen – laughing, gasping and weeping as one big audience.
Well, now you can have both. You can set up a private movie theater in your own backyard, and you can invite friends to enjoy the experience with you. Thanks to services like iTunes, you can buy a blockbuster that's still in theaters. Unlike a traditional movie theater, you can pause, talk loudly and microwave all the free popcorn you want.
Step 1: Figure out how to access movie
Before you can do anything else, you'll have to decide how to provide the movie in question. Will you stream it? If so, do you have a satisfactory WiFi connection? If you use a DVD, does your laptop still have a slot for this, or do you have another player that is compatible with a projector?
Granted, you can play a movie many different ways, and most of them are cheap and simple. But not all technology works well together. MacBooks and iPads are famously difficult to connect to many projectors, so you might want to consult with a vendor before you send out invitations.
Step 2: Find a projector
Be warned: People get obsessed with their projectors because there are so makes and models and each one is slightly different. You can find a $70 projector, such as the Dinly 130, which is designed to attach to laptops. Or you could invest more than $2,000 in the Epson Home Cinema Projector, which provides 2,500 lumens of light and more than a billion colors.
Aside from your budget, you'll also have to consider the space you're working with and how much ambient light will affect the resolution. If you're projecting in a big outdoor space, a cheaper projector might not show up very well, especially if you have to move the machine way back.
*Pro tip: Many expensive projectors also have expensive light bulbs. If that bulb goes out, you want to make sure you can procure (and afford) another one. Make sure to ask your vendor about replacement bulbs. For pricier models, you'll also want to learn about the warranty.
Step 2: Develop a speaker system
Many viewers will forgive a washed-out projection, but bad sound can be a deal breaker. If you're using a laptop, the easiest audio to set up is a Bluetooth speaker system. Bluetooth doesn't require cables, which can be a pain to set up and break apart, or a WiFi signal, which might be weak outside your home.
Ideally, every speaker would provide high volume and surround sound, helping your viewers get lost in the movie they're watching. Such a system might be prohibitively expensive, and you might get worried about theft or weather. You can find a wide range of weatherproof speakers that provide a good deal of sound, and many models are rechargeable, so you can set them up and bring them inside without an immediate need for an outlet.
You will have to figure out where to place the speakers. If you're actually creating your cinema experience in your backyard, remember that the sound will largely evaporate into the open air. So you'll need speakers with some auditory muscle, or else you'll need to set them up very close to your movie-hungry guests.
3. Set up a screen
"I'll just use a bed sheet!" you exclaim. Yes, this might work, but you'll still have to construct a frame and make sure that it's out of the wind.
The rule of thumb is that the surface should be light-hued and blank. There's a big movement, in hip neighborhoods across the country, to project movies on brick walls, but a lot of texture can be distracting. You'll also want to make sure that it's really dark out before you project; otherwise, the movie will be very hard to see. Checking the time for "sunset" won't give you a sense of when it gets truly dark. Tack on at least an hour before scheduling your screening.
4. Decide where people will sit
This isn't in the realm of technology, but seating arrangements are still very important, and they will determine how you configure your open-air movie house. Will people be lying on beach blankets? Will they be sitting in lawn chairs? Does your fraternity house have a dozen beat-up sofas that you'll be dragging onto the grass?
Like they say in the movie business: It's all about pre-production.