How to host an outdoor movie party — treat the neighborhood to a showing of The Brave Little Toaster

July 18 | Guest post by Colleen
Backyard Movie Theatre
Photo by Jason Gessner. Used under Creative Commons license.
What could be better on a summer night than your yard, some friends, and a good movie? Here's how to plan an outdoor film screening of your very own; it's easier than you might think. This could also be a fun and low-cost kids' birthday party or family event.

Technology

You'll need:

  • an LCD projector
  • a laptop or DVD player
  • speakers
  • a screen

If you don't have a projector, your school or workplace may have one available for loan. Rentals are also available from places that provide event technology.

If you don't want to borrow or rent a screen, another option is to project on to a white sheet or light-colored and relatively smooth wall.

Hooking up all of those components is quite easy; just make sure to test the setup in advance. Also be sure to use a sturdy table and keep cords out of high-traffic areas. You'd hate to have someone trip in the dark and damage the equipment.

Seating

Seating can include blankets, lawn chairs, and even air mattresses (we used one as a "couch" and it was really comfortable). Invite your guests to bring their favorite blanket or chair if you don't have enough. Our party was on a hot humid night, so I caught myself thinking about how awesome it would be to float around in a pool or even dip my feet in a kiddie pool.

Food

Popcorn Cupcakes
Photo by Janet. Used under Creative Commons license.

We kept our menu simple, but there are endless opportunities for theme menus if you're so inclined. You could serve classic movie foods like popcorn, [or popcorn cupcakes, like those above? -Cat] candy, nachos, and soft pretzels, or you could have food that corresponds to your movie choice.

Speaking of…

Movie

We all know that the movie is rather secondary to socializing, eating, drinking, and enjoying the summer evening. Both visual and sound quality will be compromised by passing traffic, streetlights, etc. so pick a feature film that's fun and easy to follow. This is not the time for deep films and definitely not subtitles.

We screened Fantastic Mr. Fox, which met all of the above criteria and had the added bonus of being family-friendly. That wasn't necessary for our guests, but was nice for the next-door neighbors with open windows. If you, like us, have close neighbors, keep the volume reasonable and start the movie as soon as it gets dark so it doesn't run too late.

The scene

Include lots of space for seating in front of the screen. You can light a bonfire or set out lawn games, but give some distance between them and the viewing area. Lighting should be kept dim so it's easier to see the film. Make sure it's easy for people to find the food and the way to the restroom in the dark without running into the equipment or stepping on other moviegoers.

Our outdoor movie was simple, but a lot of fun for the hosts and audience alike. We had a good crowd and many who couldn't make it asked us to do it again. Before summer is over we are definitely planning an encore event. I hope you can enjoy one, too!

  1. I loooove outdoor movies, and a number of places in Philly do them for free (parks, my local library, etc.). I used to work for a company that rents giant inflatable screens for just such a purpose. A word of caution: if you're showing the movie just for yourselves & friends, on your own property, and the party is not open to the public, you don't need to get licensing for your film. But if your movie party is open to the whole neighborhood (even if it's on private property) or charges admission or is some sort of fund-raiser, you should get licensing to avoid angering the copyright holders. Licensing fees vary based on the movie, the audience size, and the purpose of the screening.

    Also – the weather forecast is important! If you're planning a party, be sure to choose a rain date and let your guests know!

    If you live in Philly, check out the summer movie series at Liberty Lands (N. Libs.), Schuylkill Banks, Penn's Landing and Lovett Mem. Library (Mt. Airy)!!

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    • Great reminder about licensing, thanks!

      Our city does tons of movies in parks, at least a couple a week. Sometimes they have bands play before the film starts–now that would be even cooler in a backyard!

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  2. I absolutely love those popcorn cupcakes! Genius!
    Good note on matching the movie to the crowd. We've done several of these nights and shown things like "Dead Snow" and "Troll Hunter" which have subtitles and are definitely adult fare, with resounding success, but it definitely depends on the crowd.

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    • Wow–our cheap projector and lots of city light would have made it impossible to read subtitles. It's so cool that works for you!

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      • I think we just got lucky with the position of our backyard, we don't get much light back there from the street lights.

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  3. When I was in high school, we used to throw movie watching pool parties and had everyone floating in the pool on anything inflatable (we used inflatable chairs and couches, which were popular at the time, as well as pool floaties). We would watch movies like Waterworld and Jaws to keep with the theme. Those were good times.

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    • A local pool where i grew up actually sponsored movies nights like this! for $2 you could sit in the pool and catch a water related film, it was amazing!

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      • A local community center has hosted "float in" movies, but their pool was indoors. I'll have to see if any local outdoor pools show movies. It's been so insanely hot and humid here in MN the past few weeks that a pool and movie sound like an amazing combination. We might have to have at least a kiddie pool for our next screening.

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  4. I did not write this article! Poppycock! It's nice to meet another Colleen in the OBE!

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  5. We used a shower curtain liner for our screen. It was more opaque than a sheet and the grommets made it easy to string up.

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  6. The neighborhood is most likely NOT interested in your movie, we won't feel "treated" when we are trying to get our baby down for a nap, or for bedtime and there's a movie spectacle going on next door.

    Likewise, perhaps I'm trying to read a book while winding down for the evening, the sound of a movie playing outside my house after 7 or 8 o'clock is not going to be a very welcome sound.

    Generally the movie outside won't look good unless it's dark out, and that's when most people will be sleeping or unwinding for the night, and a movie next door will likely interrupt whatever private activity they had planned.

    Also, if it goes on past the noise ordnance time (here that time is 10:30 pm) someone will most likely have to call the police to come break up the party (just like with drunken loud music parties).

    I can only see this outdoor movie idea working if you're in a place where houses are very far apart.

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    • It depends on your neighborhood, we make it a point of letting our neighbors know when we're planning something like that and most of them end up coming over to watch. They do the same when they're having an outdoor event. A friend of mine hung her sheet from the balcony of her upstairs neighbors in her apartment complex and they came down to watch while the people across the courtyard watched from their balconies.

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      • I think the noise level also depends on how many people you're hosting. 10 people can sit in a fairly small area around the speakers, letting you keep the volume lower than if you had 30 people sprawled across the whole yard.

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  7. We have friends in SE Michigan who rent out all the equipment and set up/take down (I think) to do this. They're family friends and often bring it to get togethers in the summer for the kids. The area is suburban so the houses are not too close together – but they are also friends with their neighbors. I've never heard of noise being a problem cause the kids are all mesmerized :D

    http://www.drivewayflix.com/

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  8. What an amazing idea!!! I do live inner-city with very close neighbors, but luckily for me our neighborhood is all very laid back and have never commented on our bonfires, loud music/movies/video games, etc. And if they didn't mind me and some friends drunkenly singing atop my garage roof one night while celebrating a special occasion, then they wouldn't mind a relaxing outdoor movie night. =) I can't wait to try this!!!

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