By Mary Beth Breckenridge
RISMEDIA, August 18, 2008-(MCT)-For most of us, an outdoor theater is a thing of the past, a memory involving tinny speakers, make-out sessions and station wagons loaded with pajama-clad kids.
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.
Digital projectors and new screen technologies have made it possible for just about anyone to create an outdoor theater. Initially the movement was driven primarily 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.
One of the catalysts, Berman said, was the introduction of the inflatable outdoor screen, sort of a sophisticated cousin to those big blow-up 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 website 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.
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.
A screen can be as simple as a bed sheet, 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.
Rieg’s theater is a fairly typical setup, but some people opt for something even simpler-a weatherproof TV or one that’s protected from the elements.
That’s the option Dave and Cecilia McDermott chose for their Hudson, Ohio, backyard. Dave McDermott and his brother built a stone fireplace and barbecue grill with a niche to hold a high-definition, flat-panel TV. It’s the focal point of the McDermotts’ patio, where they love to grill out and watch sporting events, such as Browns games or golf tournaments.
The niche is deep enough that the television is protected from the weather, but the McDermotts bring the set indoors in winter or when they leave for extended periods. The wiring runs from the house to the TV via an underground conduit, so connecting and disconnecting the TV is easy, Dave McDermott said.
Of course, there are those who prefer the big impact.
The HTSA’s Berman, for example, has an outdoor theater featuring a StarGlas screen, screen material sandwiched between sheets of glass. Berman took out four windows on one side of his North Carolina house and installed a single StarGlas panel in their place.
A projector room inside the house, on the other side of the glass, holds a ceiling-mounted rear projector and all the necessary electronics, he said. Viewers watch from the top level of his patio, where the surround sound comes from five speakers disguised as rocks and two outdoor subwoofers.
Berman, who also owns Soliloquy Loudspeaker Co. near Raleigh, N.C., estimated the setup cost him $50,000 to $60,000. ”I could have spent a lot more, but I didn’t have it,” he said with a laugh.
Many people just set up the equipment when they need it, but more sophisticated systems can have permanently installed wiring, outdoor speakers and weatherproof covers for the electronics.
Sound & Vision’s Mann, for example, said the outdoor theaters his company designs often involve permanent wiring that leads to equipment indoors and some kind of stationary stand for the projector, which eliminates the need to readjust and refocus the projector with each use. Installed video connections allow the user to hook up the projector easily, he said.
No matter how simple or sophisticated the system, the whole point is fun, enthusiasts agree.
”It’s the gathering, you know?” said Fisk of Backyard Theater.com. ”It’s bringing people together.”
© 2008, Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.