How to Set up an Outdoor Movie Night—Plus, 14 Essentials You Need for Comfortable Viewing

We share the gadgets, décor, and recipes that will make your next film viewing under the stars the best night of the summer.

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Outdoor movie night
Photo: mixetto / Getty Images

Summertime is a season that revolves around outdoor entertaining—but you shouldn't feel limited to just backyard barbecues and pool parties. Instead, take advantage of the warm weather and host an outdoor movie night. "Maybe it's the big screen, the stars overhead, or just the novelty of being outside on a blanket with your [family and] friends," says event planner and lifestyle expert, Camille Styles, "but there's something about an outdoor movie that's just so much more fun than sitting around an [indoor] television."

Want to integrate a movie into a more traditional summer gathering, instead? Embrace a movie theme. "A movie-themed dinner party can make for a fun, unconventional event. Have a movie on in the background while enjoying a themed dinner al fresco," says entertaining expert and event planner Elisa Marshall, the creative director at maman.

While setting up an outdoor movie night may require a bit more planning—and shopping—than one at the cinema or in your living room, you can absolutely plan these festivities on a budget. Simply utilize furniture and serveware that you already own and stick to simple fare, and put your dollars towards comfort-centric equipment that will transform your yard into a theater.

The Essential Equipment and Décor You Need

The most important purchases for any outdoor movie night are an outdoor screen, projector, and speaker—but crafting a comfortable, durable seating area is also key, so you should invest in that category, too.

Screens, Projectors, and Speakers

Styles says you have a few options when choosing your screen. You can go the cost-effective, DIY-route by purchasing a canvas drop cloth, then using rope, tent poles, and tent stakes to prop it up—or you can buy an inflatable screen for a more convenient setup. When purchasing a projector for your movie night, make sure it's built for outdoor use and has built-in speakers—or grab bluetooth-compatible speakers separately, Styles says.

Lounge-Friendly Furniture

As you shop for furniture, remember that comfort, durability, and practicality are the most important elements for an outdoor movie night. "Some essentials are bean bag chairs, comfortable sitting blankets, a bar cart for snacks, and a fire pit," say Stefan and Maegan Bucur, interior designers at Rhythm of the Home. Styles emphasizes that if you're aiming to cut costs, planning your seating section can be straightforward: "You don't need to buy a whole new set of furniture. Make the space cozy with a comfortable outdoor rug and some oversized outdoor throw pillows," she says.

Better yet, let your entertaining supplies double as furniture. Marshall suggests using small coolers as side tables. This will provide guests with a stable surface to set down snacks—and make drink refills seamless. (As Marshall says, getting in and out of bean bag chairs isn't always easy.)

Outdoor-Friendly Movie Snacks

What's a movie night without abundant treats? Go for a buffet-style setup—it's a convenient way to serve a vast array of snacks and mimics the theater experience. "I love having a 'concession' buffet at the back of the yard so guests can refill popcorn, soda, and candy as needed," says Sylvia Fountaine, CEO and founder of Feasting at Home. "Fill bowls with candies like Red Vines, M&Ms, or any movie theater classic so no one has to deal with unwrapping noisy plastic during an intense scene." If you're concerned that squirrels or other backyard critters might try to steal your snacks, glass jars are another foolproof serving option.

Upgrade Your Popcorn

Whatever you serve, make sure there's popcorn. "It's an obvious must, and is inexpensive to make at home from scratch," Fountaine says. If you want to elevate this salty snack, she adds, you can provide homemade popcorn toppings, such as cinnamon sugar or nutritional yeast with paprika—or you can prepare seasoned popcorn for everyone.

Looking for some more snack and drink options? Consider these Martha-approved recipes, or discover more movie night bites in our own curated collection.

Simple Serveware

Finally, you need the right serveware. For a low-key, on-theme option, Fountaine recommends cute cardboard popcorn containers ($11, And if you're looking for something a bit more stylish? Styles suggests Acacia wood serving bowls to match the outdoor environment ($35.99, But, remember: There's nothing wrong with using the items you regularly pull out for indoor entertaining, so long as you keep them on a food table; for shatterproof iterations that will survive a spill, consider melamine or acrylic dinnerware and glasses for drinks.

What to Buy

To help you execute every step of the backyard movie night planning process, from setting up your tech to preparing on-theme foods and drinks, we asked our experts for their must-have items—including projectors, cozy lounge options, and bug deterrents—to purchase ahead of your open-air film viewing.

CCS Chicago Canvas and Supply Canvas Drop Cloth

canvas drop cloth
Courtesy of Amazon

Don't want to splurge on a blow-up screen? Stick to this budget option, instead. The 9' x 12' canvas drop cloth becomes the ultimate projector companion after a few minutes of setup. Just stock up on some tent poles and stakes, too, to hold everything in place on the big night.

KODAK Inflatable Outdoor Projector Screen

inflatable projector set
Courtesy of Target

For a more professional and convenient viewing experience, Styles recommends this inflatable 14-feet-tall outdoor screen. It's weather-resistant and can be securely tied down if you're hosting your viewing on a windy day. What's more, the screen comes with an air pump for easy inflation, as well as a carrying case for transport.

Threshold Glass Jar and Lid

glass jar
Courtesy of Target

When setting up your concession buffet, turn to these over-sized lidded jars, which will protect candy and snacks from squirrels and bugs. These containers are simple to clean and let your guests review all of their food options before they grab them.

Marshall Stockwell II Portable Bluetooth Speaker

Marshall Stockwell II Portable Bluetooth Speaker
Courtesy of Target

This silicone speaker may be tiny—it is 7-inches tall and weighs just 3 pounds—but the portable, Bluetooth-compatible player provides over 20 hours of continuous playtime from any enabled device up to 30 feet away. All to say, it will get you through even the longest of films, should your projector not include built-in audio.

Soji Solar 10ft String Lights

String lights
Courtesy of West Elm

A little extra light can't hurt, especially when it comes to keeping your loved ones safe as they navigate from the seating section to the snack station. "String lanterns will provide nice ambient light without adding too much light pollution to the projector," the Bucurs say. "They will be great for those who have trouble seeing at night."

Nebula Astro Portable Projector

anker nebula projector
Courtesy of Anker

If you're set on hosting an outdoor movie night the right way, you'll likely spend the bulk of your budget on a projector. Most worthwhile models clock in over the $300 mark, which is why this iteration from Nebula is a steal at $200. Compatible with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, this piece allows you to stream your flick of the night from your phone with ease.

Sunbrella® Outdoor Bean Bags

outdoor bean bags
Courtesy of West Elm

Oversized seating that stands up to the elements? Sign us up. "When it comes to seating, these outdoor bean bag chairs are my favorite," says Marshall. "They're super comfortable, durable, and perfect to weather the outdoors."

Sunnylife Round Picnic Cooler Basket

round picnic cooler
Courtesy of Sunny Life

This wicker cooler basket will be useful during your outdoor movie night—as well as other seasonal outings. "It not only makes for a cute end table, but also can double as the perfect summer accessory for picnics or the beach," Marshall says. "Stock it with some ice and a bottle of bubbly or rosé to keep the drinks flowing throughout the movie."

Epson VS260 XGA 3LCD Projector

epson projector
Courtesy of Best Buy

Looking for another projector option? Styles recommends this Epson projector for its easy setup and ability to connect to your computer or other HD device. This gadget is also known for producing especially vivid, colorful images—which is why its perfect for streaming movies.

Threshold Printed Palmetto Outdoor Throw Pillow

printed throw pillow
Courtesy of Target

Provide your guests with cozy, comfy throw pillows that are suitable for outdoor use, like this printed palm leaf pillow recommended by Styles. The colorful, nature-inspired pattern is an appropriate nod to your outdoor soirée.

Sun Squad Melamine Dinner Plate

melamine dish
Courtesy of Target

These bright, floral pattern dinner plates are weather-resistant, shatterproof, and wonderfully on-theme for a summer evening under the stars. Place a stack at the concession buffet for your guests, so they can load up before the movie starts.

Total Homefx Pro Weather-Resistant Inflatable Theatre Kit

inflatable projector screen
Courtesy of Target

If you want to purchase all of your essential equipment in one go, this inflatable screen includes an outdoor projector and stand.

Highland Dunes Green Dickinson Throw

throw blanket
Courtesy of Wayfair

Keep the temperature in mind when planning your outdoor get-together, notes Styles. "Have some outdoor throw blankets handy in case the temperature drops after sundown," she says. This heavyweight blanket—in a striking green colorway—will keep your guests warm (and it's machine washable, too, so don't worry about throwing it on the ground!).

OFF! Botanicals Deet-Free Insect Repellent

bug spray
Courtesy of Amazon

"With the outdoors also comes bugs, so make sure that you have some insect repellent for your guests," Styles says. This plant-based spray won't damage clothing or furniture, but will effectively repel mosquitoes and gnats.

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