- - Thursday, August 4, 2011

Dusk. The breeze is soft, the sky turns indigo, and the lazy drone of insects reminds all who can hear it that it’s the height of summer.

The kids are in their pj’s, hunkering down with pillows. Mom and Dad are settled comfortably, popcorn bowl nearby. Then the music swells, the screen comes to life, and the family is transported to a world of high adventure, sidesplitting comedy or heart-stopping suspense.

Just a summer’s night at the drive-in circa 1972, right? Not exactly, unless you’ve managed to make your way to Bengies in Baltimore County.

Without the ubiquity of the drive-in theaters of yesteryear, more and more area families are choosing to create their own outdoor theaters — sans cars — in their neighborhoods.

“We’re seeing a lot of interest in outdoor electronics,” said Dante Del Aguila, manager at Graffiti Audio-Video in Tenleytown.

“There are outdoor televisions, outdoor speakers, and many, many manufacturers are making outdoor versions of their equipment.”

Pottery Barn recently featured a well-appointed and inviting outdoor room, complete with movie screen, on its catalog cover, which prompted a barrage of Internet chatter and homeowners clamoring to reproduce the scene in their backyards.

Let’s face it, those drive-in memories might be a bit out of focus.

In reality, the theaters weren’t always all that comfortable, with children crammed in the back seat, sound that could be, well, full of static and snacks that always seemed overpriced.

These days, the new interest in cozy and appealing outdoor spaces is combining with state-of-the-art technology to produce an outdoor film experience that is comfortable and affordable. Whether you are a do-it-yourselfer, an audio- or videophile or someone who would rather have someone else do the work, there’s an outdoor movie experience that can transform an ordinary summer night into an extraordinary one.

Sterling, Va.’s Tom Logan comes by his love for outdoor films naturally. He grew up a stone’s throw from the very first drive-in theater, the Garden State, in southern New Jersey.

“I can remember 11 different drive-ins when I was growing up,” said Mr. Logan, an IT contractor for the federal government. “By 6 p.m., we were in our pajamas and raring to go.”

There aren’t any drive-ins left near Mr. Logan’s Fall’s Ridge neighborhood, but he’s been able to capture a bit of that old spirit, hosting movies at his home and at his neighbors’ properties for community events. He started with a budget — about $1,000 — and some tips from backyardtheater.com and found bargains at Costco and Circuit City. He bought the cheapest DVD player he could, figuring he would have to replace it sooner or later anyway.

“The bulk of the budget was the projector — about $700,” he said. “Of course, now you can get much higher quality for less.”

With a bit of ingenuity and some help from his wife and neighbors, Mr. Logan created an easy-to-assemble and disassemble “outdoor movie kit” that enables him to set up an outdoor viewing experience in less than 20 minutes. For the screen, he purchased a couple of lengths of curtain lining from his local craft store, and his wife stitched them together to produce a viewing space that is about 9 by 12 feet — perfect for neighborhood events.

Right now, after a summer without many movies — too hot and too rainy — Mr. Logan and his family are looking forward to the neighborhood picnic, at which about 30 people turn up for a film and a bit of community fellowship - a pretty good showing for a neighborhood of just 44 houses.

“One or two guys usually come out to help me set up,” said Mr. Logan, whose triple features for Halloween - they get progressively more scary as the evening goes on — have become a piece of neighborhood lore.

“That’s the most important thing,” he said.

And, of course, the setting is important, even if it’s not time to start hanging up the ghosts and spider webs. Today’s manufacturers of outdoor furniture are placing new emphasis on comfort, color and pattern.

“A great outdoor room should be an extension of your home, so decorate it to be comfortable and inviting,” said Kendra Stewart, associate public relations manager at Pottery Barn.

Time was, it was easy to distinguish between outdoor and indoor furniture — most homeowners would never be caught sitting on those green and white webbed or plastic lawn chairs in their living rooms. Now, that cushy outdoor lounger with its colorful pillows wouldn’t seem out of place indoors.

Outdoor sectionals covered in quality fabrics can help to create the feeling of taking the indoors out - and make it doubly difficult to come back inside. Outdoor rugs that resemble their indoor counterparts add panache but can be hosed down easily if necessary. Today’s outdoor fabrics are resistant to mold and mildew, too, making it easier to maintain them throughout the season, making for outdoor spaces that are both creative and comfortable.

Just remember to consider your space — and your guests — as you start setting up. Go to the Pottery Barn website and search for “movie screen,” and you’ll find plenty of pointers for setting up your backyard.

You also can check out backyardtheater.com, a veritable clearinghouse of information, ideas and products that is the brainchild of Randy Fisk, a self-confessed do-it-yourselfer and audio-video enthusiast.

He was in the IT industry when he first got the idea for a backyard theater of his own. That was back in the mid-‘90s, and the $7,000 projector he wanted was, well, nixed by his wife.

Fast-forward a few years, though, and the secondary market was making it more affordable to own projectors — if you were willing to buy used ones. Mr. Fisk did, and he combined it with the pieces of audio gear he had at home to produce his first system.

He started the website in 2000, filling it with photos and descriptions of what he was doing with his own backyard theater projects. A couple of years later, the emails started arriving, leading to backyardtheater.com’s many forums, which enable fellow enthusiasts to share their expertise. There’s even a link to the U.S. Naval Observatory’s sunset calculator so you can determine the best time to start the show.

“We’re really building a community of those interested in the DIY aspect of backyard theaters,” Mr. Fisk said. “One of the great things about this site is that we really encourage people to get started.”

Thanks to big-box stores and the secondary market, neophytes today can easily put a system together for about $400 to $800, and sometimes even less, he said.

“You don’t have to have everything state of the art in order to have a great experience,” he added. “You can start with a bedsheet for a screen and upgrade later.”

Mr. Fisk also notes the need to keep things simple, limiting setup time to 10 to 15 minutes.

“Easier setup means more fun,” he said.

Beyond that, it’s up to the homeowner to determine how far and how fancy to go. At this point, Mr. Fisk has installed shakers beneath his deck floor so viewers feel the deck shake beneath them during moments of high impact during a film.

“If you are a DIYer, you can always take things to the next level,” he said. “Once you get into this, you’ll start seeing potential screens everywhere.”

But whether your system is simple or stepped up, it’s important to remember the neighbors, not all of whom may be willing to watch — or hear — your movie.

“If the neighbors are in proximity, you want to respect their space and not be too loud,” Mr. Fisk said. “Typically, outdoor movies are a great way to bring neighbors together, but you’ll occasionally have someone who just wants to be left alone.”

In that case, Mr. Fisk said, focus on high-quality sound, which will allow things not to get too loud. Another way to reduce sound impact is to use a “zone system,” with smaller speakers dispersed throughout the audience.

Not a DIY type of person? Don’t despair. A number of companies offer setup and take-down services, using inflatable screens and high-end sound systems.

“Our crew will set things up, stay and take them down at the end of the night,” said Todd Severn, owner and CEO of FunFlicks (www.funflicks.com), which licenses local proprietors to offer outdoor movie services to families and groups. The company is based outside of Baltimore and serves the Greater Washington area.

At FunFlicks, customers can purchase a movie experience that comes complete with an old-fashioned-style popcorn cart. Prices start at $299 for families and $599 for crowds of 50 or more.

“Our generation remembers the days of the drive-in, and now that we’re having kids, we want to re-create that experience of family,” Mr. Severn said.

Because in the end, it’s not so much the color or your chair or the bass level of your subwoofer that matters the most. It’s the crickets, the comfort and, of course, getting to wear your pj’s outside.

“My mantra is that people don’t go to outdoor movies for the picture quality or the sound quality,” Mr. Logan said. “They go to have a good time.”

And for that, you don’t have to remember the drive-in — you just have to get your family together.

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