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How to Plan a Beautiful Outdoor Movie Night

A reel-to-reel movie projector showing a film on a sheet in a backyard.

During this summer of social distancing, you might be looking for fun, low-stress ways to get your family out of the house. If you have the space, a backyard movie night could be just the activity you all need!

Right now, experts continue to advise against large indoor gatherings (among many other activities) to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Movie theaters definitely qualify as a “large indoor gathering,” making them one of the riskiest places to go right now.

However, watching movies from your couch might be getting a little stale after months in lockdown. An outdoor movie night is safe, plus you can get some fresh air, and a taste of that beloved theater experience!

Here’s a step-by-step plan to make the experience truly great.

Get Your Equipment

First, you’ll need the following pieces of equipment to get your movie night set up:

  • A projector
  • A media player
  • A sound system
  • A screen

You don’t have to buy premium models. An inexpensive, secondhand projector can provide just as much movie magic as a top-of-the-line model.

For a useful, detailed guide on how to choose and set up this equipment, check out this deep dive on our sister site, How-To Geek. The instructions will make setting up easier, even if you’re not tech-savvy.

You might also want to consider playing your movie with the subtitles on. Outdoor movie sound is harder to get right, and random sounds or noisy kids can add to the problem. Subtitles will ensure no one misses much of the story.


Once you have your equipment set up, you’ll need to set up your seating. You can use anything that’s comfortable and durable enough for outdoor use. Patio furniture, lawn chairs, or just some blankets on the ground can all work.

Although, for the true luxury movie theater experience you really can’t go wrong with zero-gravity lounge chairs. Sleeping bags can also keep everyone cozy as night falls.

However, keep in mind that sitting on the hard ground can get uncomfortable over the course of a two-hour movie. Washable pillows and cushions are great additions. Also, if you plan to use the ground for seating, step out during daylight hours to clear the space of rocks, sticks, and other debris you don’t want to sit on.

Ordinarily, you might invite the whole neighborhood over for an impromptu gathering. Right now, though, social distancing is important. You can either set up seating for just your family or plan for a few families with appropriate social distancing in place.

If you plan to invite others, make sure you leave at least six feet between each family. Designate everyone’s seating sections ahead of time. This will make it easier to commit to appropriate distancing.

However, you should ask everyone to bring their own chairs or blankets to reduce the possibility of disease transmission.

Pick a Movie

Let’s get real: picking a movie as a family is often a challenge. You’ll want to start the process early, since last-minute debates over what to watch will get frustrating for everyone.

To make sure no one feels left out, you might want to establish some guidelines for the decision process. For example, maybe you could take turns, with each person picking a movie on different nights. You can also take a family vote to decide between two favorites.

If you’re still drawing a blank on movie possibilities, here are some ideas to help you find something to watch. You can also check out the top 100 family movies on Rotten Tomatoes.

Whatever you pick, do keep the location of the screen and the proximity of your neighbors in mind. It might not be a good idea to have a Saw marathon if your neighbor’s child has a bedroom window that looks into your backyard.

Prepare Snacks

Caramel popcorn in a wooden bowl.
Africa Studio/Shutterstock

While your kitchen might only be a few steps away, you don’t want to interrupt the movie by constantly venturing inside for refreshments. An inexpensive cooler will keep an array of drinks handy. If it’s a hot night, you can put candy bars and anything else that might melt in there, too.

For snacks, try setting out some options on a bar cart or folding table. You can keep it simple with movie-snack classics, like chips, candy, and, of course, popcorn. An assortment of fun seasonings will make the old standby even better! Healthier options, like fruit, veggies, and hummus can be just as good for a home movie night.

While you wait for sunset, you can even fire up the grill and enjoy your movie with a side of hamburgers, hot dogs, and other cookout fare.

Set out any plates and napkins ahead of time so everyone can focus on eating while watching. Compartment trays are a cool way to let everyone choose a personalized array of snacks.

Inviting other families? If so, you should have everyone bring their own food, drinks, and utensils. This will reduce the risk of spreading disease.

Provide Pest Control

Whenever people gather outdoors with food, you can expect a few uninvited visitors to show up, too. Depending on the types of bugs that thrive in your area, you’ll want to take preventative measures.

Try setting out some citronella candles or having a natural repellant, like Cedarcide, on hand. Try to keep food in containers with covers or lids, so it won’t be exposed for too long.

Dress Appropriately

Wearing whatever you feel comfortable in is the way to go, whether that’s pajamas, loungewear, or jeans. It’s your backyard, so as long as no one’s dressed offensively (or completely nude), pretty much anything goes!

A little planning for temperature changes can go a long way, though. Wear layers or keep something warm handy, as the temperature will probably drop significantly by the time the movie’s over. A few extra sweaters (or blankets) will prevent anyone from having to get up mid-movie.

Plan the Lighting

Lastly, you’ll need a bit of lighting to complete the experience. Even though the glow of a projector offers some illumination, special lighting adds to the ambiance and ensures no one will trip and fall on a bathroom break.

Keep the lighting dim and near the ground, so it won’t interfere with the screen. A few flameless lanterns will do the trick, or you can repurpose a string of Christmas lights or even some glowing Halloween decorations.

In fact, if you really want to go all out, you can match the lighting and decor to the movie for a theme night. If you’re watching The Nightmare Before Christmas, you can mix and match all your holiday decorations!

An outdoor movie night can be as simple or as elaborate as you want it to be. Except for the tech equipment, you probably already have the basics.

If not, you can use this as an excuse to shop for some new outdoor furniture or fancy snacks! Get into it, but you don’t have to overcomplicate it. Movie nights are meant to be fun, so don’t worry if everything isn’t perfect.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a freelance and creative writer from the Pacific Northwest, and an MFA student at the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop. She specializes in lifestyle writing and creative nonfiction. Read Full Bio »
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