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Life in Reel Time

Creating an @ home movie theater experience

Summer looks quite a bit different this year. While some patios and beaches are starting to welcome their patrons back to public areas, COVID-19 seems to have wiped out the possibility of watching anticipated summer blockbusters in theaters altogether. Never one to shy away from a challenge or extremely specific theme party, I decided to recreate the movie theater experience in my backyard. It seemed like the perfect way to reconnect with a small group of friends in a safe, outdoor setting, as well as enjoy the beautiful Midwest summer weather that seems to fly by too fast.  In this article you’ll learn some tips and tricks to bring the movie theater experience to your home. Whether it be in the living room of your studio apartment or in a backyard, this guide can be tailored to fit your lifestyle. Instead of dwelling on “what could have been” this summer, embrace the time at home and read on to learn how to create your unique movie theater experience!

The Basics

Movie Selection

While it might seem like the simplest part of creating an at-home movie theater experience, choosing a movie can make or break your night. Read your audience before making a movie selection. If it’s a solo movie night or you’re planning a date night, your movie pick can be more obscure –  if you’re planning on having more friends attend, it’s better to choose crowd pleasers (“oldies but goodies,” so to speak). 

In a pinch and need to decide on a movie quickly? Check out some films that are already Fool’s Gold approved: “The Florida Project”, “Junebug” or films featuring actress Juliette Binoche, such as “Chocolat” or “Let The Sunshine In.” Another great option is renting a new release from home – bonus points if it’s from your local independent movie theater!  The Parkway Theater is based in Minneapolis, but movies from their Virtual Cinema can be purchased and streamed anywhere. 50% of the ticket price goes to support the theater, and 50% goes to the filmmakers and distributors. Check frequently – they’re always rotating and adding titles!

Looking to host a small group? It’s inevitable that there will be chatter and side conversations throughout the night – stick to classic, universal favorites that most of your guests have already seen.  A few suggestions: 

  • Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (Netflix)
  • Back to the Future (Netflix)
  • ET (Netflix)
  • 10 Things I Hate About You (Disney+)
  • The Parent Trap (Disney+)
  • Footloose (Amazon Prime)
  • Dirty Dancing (Amazon Prime & Hulu)
  • Bend It Like Beckham (Hulu)
  • Jaws (HBO)
  • Uncle Buck (HBO)

Concession Snacks

It is impossible to have a movie night without a variety (and abundance) of snacks. While a lot of us hem and haw at concessions stand prices, there’s just something magical about movie theater popcorn that you can’t replicate at home. Riverview Theater in Minneapolis sells take-out popcorn nearly every weekend for just $4 for a large size; check their Facebook page for hours of operation.  It’s a win-win: you get to support a local business and treat your household to some of the most talked about popcorn in the city! Not in the Twin Cities? Check if there are any mom and pop(corn) shops or independent theaters offering takeout popcorn near you. There’s also no shame in making your own at home! Stick to a classic drizzle of butter, or kick it to the next level with some Italian seasoning or garlic powder.

Let’s talk candy. The key to a good treat spread is to have a nice mixture between chocolate (M&Ms, Reese’s Pieces, Raisinets, Milk Duds) and candy (Skittles, Sweet Tarts, Mike & Ikes, Sour Patch Kids). Large mason jars are an easy way to display your picks. You’ll find out later on in the article where to make labels that adhere to a vintage 50’s theme, if you want to recreate a drive-in vibe!

Drink options for your concessions stand can be as easy or complex as you’d like. If craft soda is your poison, Northern Soda Company is local to Minnesota and creates flavors such as Pontoon Punch, Minnesota Apple and Caramel Cream Root Beer. If you’re feeling fancy, try out a cocktail recipe from one of the previous Bar Cart articles. Is it just me, or does a Stirred Dirty Martini sound like a perfect pair with “Dirty Dancing”? 

A simple way to up your snack game for your movie crew is to turn a bar cart into a concessions stand. Use the top level for your treat display, and the bottom levels for empty popcorn bags, small mason jars and glasses for your guests to grab and fill themselves. Don’t forget serving scoops for each type of candy & popcorn – just because you’re at home doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take health & safety precautions!

Take It Outside

Have a backyard? If so, you can elevate your at-home movie theater experience by investing in a few pieces! Here’s how to:

Find a large open space (~8.7’ x 4.9’) on the side of your house, garage or fence that will work to project movies. You can either use a thick white bed sheet or purchase a projection screen; the easiest way to “install” with minimal commitment is to use Command hooks to hang tightly on your wall space.

The most important part of an outdoor movie theater is the projector. I researched a few different versions, but ended up purchasing the DBPOWER Mini Projector at a budget price on Amazon. I was looking for something no-fuss that simply served the purpose of playing a movie on a large surface. The picture quality was much better than I expected! There are a few manual focus wheels on the top to tweak with until you get your most crisp video. To stream your movie, you will need a HDMI cord to connect to a laptop or DVD player, or Google Chromecast to stream from your mobile device. This projector has the ability to connect to your phone directly as well, but you’ll need to purchase a separate HDMI converter cord if you wish to do so. I used the laptop method and it was quick and easy to set up!

While most projectors have a built-in speaker, you’ll most likely want to hook up a small speaker to make sure the sound throws around the yard space for everyone to hear. You’d be surprised how easily cars passing by or a screen door opening and closing can really detract from the movie-viewing experience! 

The one drawback to hosting an outdoor movie night as opposed to an indoor experience is that you have to wait until dusk to truly set up the projector correctly. It has to be dark enough outside to be able to view the picture displayed, but if you take too long during setup, it gets so dark that it’s hard to navigate your electrical cords, get your speaker connected, press play on your laptop, etc. I strongly recommend doing a trial run on a free night before inviting guests over; this helps work out any kinks you may run into.  During your trial run, set up the projector on a small end table or stool and adjust the distance to the screen until it fits the dimensions perfectly. Take note of the exact location of where you set up your projector, how to hide any cords and where the speaker sounds best in your backyard – your second go around will go much smoother!

To make the backyard more welcoming and a little cozier for your guests, add some bright throw pillows to any deck chairs you might already have or scatter thick blankets and quilts throughout the yard. Folding camping chairs will also do! If you’re worried about not having enough seating options for your entire guest list, tell them to BYOB – Bring Your Own Blanket!

Next Level Ambience


I don’t care who you are or where you’re from, something we can all agree on is that twinkle lights are the best for creating instant ambience. Hang your lights in a swooped pattern above your movie screen to mimic the old school draped curtains you used to see at theaters and instantly draw attention to your movie screen. Outdoor string lights can be purchased almost anywhere – just make sure they’re specified as “outdoor” so that they’ll withstand the elements if you leave them up overnight in rainy weather! While they might be convenient, the dorm room twinkle lights from the dollar section of Target just aren’t going to cut it.  

Tiki torches serve double duty on the lighting front – they add a little something extra to your outdoor movie atmosphere + keep away pesky mosquitoes. If you’re looking for a budget friendly option, citronella tea lights can be placed in mason jars or glasses you already have on hand.


Zhuzh up your décor (credit to Jonathan Van Ness from Queer Eye for this incredible verb) with signage for your movie night. Pixlr is a free online design tool (think Adobe Photoshop but on a smaller scale) that you can use to create graphics. I used Pixlr to create an 8×10 movie poster, a cover image for a pre-show Spotify playlist and candy jar labels. For my candy jar labels, I downloaded a font called Cherry Cream Soda. There are a lot of free options on – utilize different keywords like “retro,” “diner” or “vintage” until you find one you like the best for your movie night! 

If you’re a regular at throwing parties and events, a good investment is a lightbox message board. I chose to display the message “Now Showing” and setting the lightbox next to the framed movie poster, but you could also swap for different movie phrases or quotes. “Please silence your phone,” “Concessions” or “______ Home Theater” (insert your last name) are all fun alternatives.

Pre-show Playlist

In continuing with the retro theme, put together the perfect soundtrack to welcome your guests and have on while you visit your concessions and wait for your movie to start.  Focus on popular tracks from the 1950s – 1970s from artists like Little Richard, The Supremes and The Beach Boys.  A good rule of thumb is if you can picture it being played at a drive-in movie theater or diner, it’ll probably be a good addition to your mix!  You can check out an already made Spotify playlist “At the Drive-In,” here.

Now that you have your basics covered and the ambiance set, all that’s left to do is sit back, relax and press play! The beauty of an at-home movie theater experience is that you can pause for as many drink refills, snack fixes and bathroom breaks as you want.  Gather your loved ones (while adhering to social distancing/gathering rules for your city, of course) and enjoy a cinematastic night in.

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