Tech Savvy: Turn your backyard into a home theater

Drive-in graphic
With the right technology, movie lovers can bring a drive-in style theater to their own backyard. Metro newspaper service

As restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19 begin to lift, businesses like movie theaters are working on plans to reopen their facilities.

For some, that’s great news. Sitting in comfy seats in a dark theater in front of a big screen is the preferred format for many movie buffs. But for those who aren’t quite ready to dive back into society quite yet, there’s still an option to get that movie theater experience without leaving home. The answer is a homemade theater right in your own backyard. Setup will be a bit more strenuous than just driving to the theater and buying a ticket, but the end product will be more than worth it for those who want to minimize concerns of virus exposure, or those who want to take advantage of warm summer nights.

Sit back, relax and maybe grab some popcorn as you continue on to learn what you need to turn your backyard into a private home theater.

Projector and media

First on the list is a projector, which can range in price anywhere from about $100 to over $300, depending on the system.

Amazon’s top recommendation is the Vankyo Leisure 3 mini projector, priced at $119.99. With both a USB drive and HDMI input, this projector supports various forms of media, including TV sticks (Roku, Amazon Fire, etc.), Google Chromecast or gaming consoles for the streamers out there, or laptops, DVD and Blu-ray players for those who prefer to take a more old school approach. Both Apple and Android smartphones can be connected with separate adapters as well.


Screen size on the mini projector varies from 32-170 inches, with a projection distance ranging from 4.9-16.4 feet.

Vankyo has several other models, as well, increasing in price along with brightness and resolution levels, screen size and number of speakers.

These projectors require a Wi-Fi connection, meaning you’ll need to make sure you’ve got either a hotspot or that the signal on your Wi-Fi router extends far enough outside. If the signal isn’t strong enough, an extra router or a signal amplifier can solve the problem. Signal amplifiers start about $20 and increase in price based on the range.

For those who don’t want to mess around with a lot of cords and have some extra cash to spare, Caiwei portable projectors will set you back about $330-$460 but include Bluetooth connectivity, meaning speakers, smartphones, tablets and laptops with Bluetooth capabilities can be connected wirelessly. These projectors offer a brighter display, larger screen and a higher distancing range than the mini Vankyo, too.

As an added perk, projectors can be used inside, too, perfect for a cozy movie night in the living room in the dead of winter. For some, the right projector can even replace a TV all together. But perhaps I’ll save that for a future column.

Speakers and audio

While most projectors have built in speakers, they don’t always provide the audio quality necessary for groups who might be distanced far from the projector. Bluetooth speakers can be connected to Caiwei projectors or others that have Bluetooth capabilities. Small speakers start around $25 and increase in price along with size and volume, some getting up over $300. Knowing the audience size is key.

A set of Onforu outdoor Bluetooth speakers with LED mood lights will add the ambiance of an outdoor movie night or any backyard gathering with their lamp-like design and bright multi-colored display. A set of two is priced at $154.99 on Amazon.

USB speakers will easily connect with Vankyo and other projectors that have USB ports with a cable. Small ones start around $10, with larger outdoor speakers better suited for bigger audiences likely costing consumers between $100-$200.


TikiTunes portable speakers work with both Bluetooth or USB cables and add to the fun of an outdoor gathering with their tiki torch appearance, complete with LED lights. A speaker and adjustable pole combo pack on Amazon is priced at $49.99.

But if you’re planning on a solo or small group movie night with just a couple of friends and family members, the speakers built into the projector will likely suffice.


Of course, if you’re going to have an outdoor movie night, you’ll obviously need a screen.

A white sheet hung up on the side of the house or garage will probably do just fine for most that have the option. But if that option isn’t conducive to the space, you may need to get a separate screen.

Amazon’s top seller is the Mdbebbron 120-inch projection screen, priced at $49.99. It comes with ropes, hooks and double sided tape for various forms of set up but does not come with a stand. Best Buy carries various projector screens with stands, starting at $87 for a an Elite Screens 85-inch tripod screen, increasing up to $169 for a 120-inch screen of the same brand.

Mosquito repellent

It wouldn’t be summer in central Minnesota without gobs of mosquitoes coming out at night, so some sort of bug repellent is a must for nightly outdoor activities.

While picking up a can of OFF! at the store might be a quick, easy fix, there’s also an odor-free tech solution for the pesky little insects.

The Thermacell Cambridge Mosquito Repellent Patio Shield Lantern, for example, is designed to look like a lantern but also provides mosquito protection for a 225-square-foot area. The lantern uses allethrin, a synthetic copy of the natural repellent found in chrysanthemums. The top-rated lantern is priced at $29.97 on Amazon and runs on AAA batteries. Each lantern comes with a fuel cartridge that lasts about 12 hours. Refill cartridges are sold separately.


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A Thermacell mosquito repellent lantern offers an electronic way to keep mosquitoes as bay. Photo courtesy of Thermacell

Optional add-ons

Projector: check. Screen: check. Movies: check. Speakers: check. That about does it for the technology necessary to host an outdoor movie night, but there are plenty of extra gadgets to enhance the occasion further.

Though some of the speakers and mosquito repellents discussed include LED lights, some movie-goers might want more lighting for the outdoor theater. The options for that are nearly endless. Whether it’s using strings of Christmas lights or purchasing solar stake lights that sit in the ground and gain their power from the sun, the perfect lighting can make or break the makeshift theater.

Want your backyard to feel even more like a movie theater? A mini cinema marquee will do the trick. Products like the Brooklyn Lighting Company Cinema Light Box, priced at $24.99 on Amazon, come with assorted letters and bright lights around the edges to mirror signs you might see at an actual theater.

Don’t forget the cords

With all the electronics needed, make sure you’ve got enough extension cords and power strips on hand to reach outside, or the movie night will be over before it starts.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at .

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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