Cover story: Film nights move to backyard

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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.

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