How to Set up an Outdoor Movie Night—Plus, 14 Essentials You Need for Comfortable Viewing
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.
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.
Finally, you need the right serveware. For a low-key, on-theme option, Fountaine recommends cute cardboard popcorn containers ($11, surlatable.com). And if you're looking for something a bit more stylish? Styles suggests Acacia wood serving bowls to match the outdoor environment ($35.99, bedbathandbeyond.com). 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.