To some of us, watching a movie outdoors is like cooking on a barbecue grill: It might be an average movie or a cheap cut of meat, but some things are just better under the sky.
Whatever the reason - some think it's a replacement for the nearly extinct drive-in movie, one of the reactions that grew out of the down economy or another part of the post 9/11 entertain-in-place trend - more and more people are watching movies outdoors. There are even websites devoted to what's become known as backyard theater.
Advancing technology, particularly brighter and cheaper video projectors, has made the personal backyard movie theater more practical and affordable.
It's now possible to buy a new system, projector and screen, for well under $1,000. A 10-foot screen can be had for around $200. Projectors sell for as little as $500. If you want to go up to a 1,080-pixel high-resolution projector you can spend several hundred dollars more to over $3,000. But some of today's $500 projectors throw a brighter and sharper image than $2,000 projectors of just a couple of years ago.
"You don't even need a screen," says Megan Mogan. She and husband Chris project movies on the wall of her next-door neighbor and mother-in-law.
The Mogans have an "A" Mountain-area home with a pool in the backyard. "People either stick their feet in and sit alongside, or float on a raft while they watch," Megan says.
"We started with a painter's dropcloth, hanging off the back of the ramada," says Brad Holt, who lives in the Catalina Foothills. "But I did some research and found that some vinyl material made a better screen. It's more reflective."
But for Holt, it's not about the technology anyway. He takes pride in having thrown together a backyard system that looks and sounds great for less than $500.
Holt said he bought a used $1,000 projector off Craigslist for $300 and got a screen made from the back of one of those huge vinyl covers used on interstate billboards. "I spent $80 for a 16-foot-by-10-foot movie screen. A professional screen that size is going to be $4,000. I got it shipped to my door for $80," said Holt.
The Mogans did Holt one better. Not only do they use a neighbor's wall for a screen, but until recently they used a projector they borrowed from a friend. That went on for a couple of years, until they were celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary and some of their dive-in movie friends chipped in and bought them a new projector.
Megan said she and Chris used an old stereo system to make a surround system, setting the speakers up on the pool wall.
Holt has upgraded his original system, but still with an eye to keeping the costs down. Using an old motorized rolling shade that was in storage, he said he replaced the shade material with the vinyl billboard screen and mounted it on the back of the ramada. When not in use, it's out of sight. And for about $150 he has since upgraded the audio with a modest sound bar and subwoofer made for home theater. "It gives great sound," he says.
SOME THINGS STAY THE SAME
But getting people to agree on what they want to watch isn't any easier outdoors than in. And the more people you have - and the Holts and the Mogans say they sometimes have a dozen or more people over - the tougher it is to get consensus.
The screening may be at the Mogans' home, but, "We vote," Megan says emphatically.
The Mogans recalled the one time they let a friend choose the movie.
"It was about a wrestling squid, in Japanese." Mogan recalls "The Calamari Wrestler," all too vividly. "It was the first time people got up and left, even my father. He (the friend) is never allowed to pick again."
That's not to say quirky films don't work with the Mogans' dive-in movie crowd. She says, "The Big Lebowski" was probably the all-time favorite with her floating movie group. Maybe it was the white Russians they served, appropriately as the preferred beverage of leading man Jeff Bridges' character, Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski.
"Most of the people knew nearly every line," says Mogan.
For the adult Holts, there may be disagreement with the choices foisted upon them by the children, but Brad Holt says it's all for the best.
Holt, who grew up in Tucson, said he passed on his love of drive-in movies and particularly missed the De Anza when it closed several years ago.
He and wife Jennifer have two daughters, Jana and Ava, 2 1/2 and 6 years old.
"So, we're pretty much a Disney cartoon household," Brad Holt says. "Mostly it's involving some kind of princess. Every now and then when the kids are asleep, we'll rent a good movie. But mostly it involves princesses."
And this all started with the kids in mind, says Holt. "Before they closed the DeAnza Drive In (theater) my daughter was old enough to sit through a movie in a drive-in, but not in a theater," Holt says. "When they closed that down we were really disappointed that the outdoor-movie experience was going away."
He said they went to movie nights at the zoo, and swim-in night at Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa.
"We loved it," Holt says. "But I started thinking, why couldn't I do it at home? I started doing a little research. It just takes a projector and a wall or garage door. Just to see the kids' faces when you put up your favorite movie on a 10-foot screen in the backyard."
The right gear
You can use the same equipment you use inside, whether a large flat-screen and a Blu-ray or standard DVD player. And that might not be a bad idea anyway, as storing some of the gear outside, particularly the player and projector, is not a good idea. Dust and optics don't go together any better than electronics and moisture.
Brad Holt built a rolling audio-video cart with places and connections for the player, projector and sound system. He just rolls it out of the garage when it's showtime. The rolling cart also makes it easier to store it in a safe dry and clean place, and cover it up.
But hauling a giant flat screen and remounting outside is cumbersome and time-consuming. So projectors and screens (or walls) are the preferred basics.