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Originally published Saturday, August 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Create your own outdoor movie theater

How to rig up an inexpensive — or fancy — outdoor movie theater in your own backyard.

Akron Beacon Journal

For many, an outdoor movie theater is a faded memory of an old drive-in with tinny speakers or a summer night gathering on a crowded, noisy public parking lot or field.

Brian Rieg's outdoor theater is his own backyard.

Rieg can set up the space behind his Medina, Ohio, home with everything he and his family need to watch a movie, take in a game or play video games, all on the oversized splendor of a 16-by-9-foot screen.

"It's a drive-in without the cars," he said.

Rieg is among a small but growing number of home-theater enthusiasts who are taking their interest outdoors, enjoying the romance of video under the stars without leaving home.

Anyone can do it

Digital projectors and new screen technologies have made it possible for just about anyone to create an outdoor theater. Initially the movement was driven by sports fans who wanted to watch games on outdoor screens, but movies have become a natural extension, said David Berman, director of training and public relations for the trade organization Home Theater Specialists of America.

Although the Consumer Electronics Association doesn't have statistics on the popularity of outdoor home theaters, "it's something we've seen now for a couple of years," said Tim Herbert, senior director of market research. More waterproof LCD televisions and products often used in outdoor theaters have come onto the market, suggesting there's a demand, he said.

Inflatable screens and lower costs

One of the catalysts, Berman said, was the introduction of the inflatable outdoor screen, sort of a sophisticated cousin to those big blowup Santas. Inflatable screens have the advantages of portability and ease of use, inflating in minutes and deflating into a unit small enough to store easily — in some cases, in a carrying bag.

Another contributing factor has been the decline in projector prices, said both Herbert and Randy Fisk, who runs BackyardTheater.com, a Web site dedicated to do-it-yourselfers. Digital projectors used to be prohibitively expensive for most people, he said, but the cost has dropped and the market for used projectors has grown.

Costs and components

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A professionally designed outdoor theater can range from a few thousand dollars at the most basic to $100,000 or more for a knock-your-socks off setup. But Fisk said a do-it-yourselfer can rig up a system for around $1,000, or even less if the person already owns some of the necessary equipment.

The basic components of any outdoor theater are a screen, a sound system such as a stereo receiver and speakers, a projector and a video source, usually a DVD player or laptop computer. Or you can use a theater-in-a-box, which combines a projector with a DVD player and speakers, said Gregg Mann, manager of Sound & Vision in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.

Most projectors have an input for hooking up to a TV tuner, so they can be used for watching sporting events and other programming.

Screen options

A screen can be as simple as a bedsheet, a smooth white wall or a piece of plywood, or as elaborate as the glass screen Berman had installed in an exterior wall of his house.

Rieg made his screen by stretching blackout fabric — a type of drapery lining — over a frame constructed of metal electrical conduit. He can hang the screen from hooks on two wood posts that are permanently installed in a corner of his yard or set it up on a support he built from PVC pipe and bungee cords.

He bought two used projectors on eBay, one of which he uses as a backup for his side business presenting outdoor movies for groups. The DVD player came from his basement, and he uses an old stereo he had and speakers someone was throwing away. Altogether, he figures he spent less than $1,000.

The theater encourages neighborhood get-togethers, Rieg said. And he and his wife, Missy, especially like that it has made their yard a gathering place for friends of their sons, Adam, 16, and Tyler, 13.

Whenever the screen goes up, the neighbors know they're invited to come over with a lawn chair, Rieg said. He even bought a popcorn machine to make the experience authentic.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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