Toronto, Canada: Outdoor Movies in Your Backyard May Be Easier Than You Think

Photo Credit: Janice Biehn. Nothing says summer like an outdoor movie, especially when it's in your backyard. Growing up in London, Ontario in the '70s, I missed out on the boom years of the drive-in movie theater. There were a couple on the outskirts of town, but I only remember seeing "Star Wars" at the long-defunct Twilite Drive-in. My father kept changing the radio station from the movie soundtrack to Detroit's WJR to get the Tigers' score: "Luke, I am your ... STRIKE THREE!" It was maddening. Things looked a lot better for my outdoor movie experience when I was 20, traveling around Santorini Island. For a few drachmas we saw "Gorillas in the Mist" while sipping ouzo at an outdoor cinema with tables set up in an amphitheatre. Oh, those Greeks. I thought that would be the pinnacle of my outdoor film career. But a few years ago my husband, Craig, got revved up about screening movies in our own west Toronto backyard. Since the advent of reasonably priced digital projectors in the last five years (and if you know my "I-don't-pay-retail" husband, reasonably priced equals cheap), showing our favourite flicks to throngs of neighbourhood children has become a summertime ritual, starting with the last day of school. We purchased a BenQ projector four years ago for the bargain price of $560, after mail-in rebates (prices have come down since 2004). Generally speaking, the built-in speakers in most projectors are not sufficient for an outdoor cinema. If there's no surround sound, why bother? A stereo or old boom box will do, or if you aspire to true surround sound, a "home theatre in a box" system starts for as little as $200 for five speakers, subwoofer, surround receiver and sometimes a DVD player. We have a decent portable sound system, which does the job well. The final component was the outdoor movie screen. We experimented with a four-by-eight-foot sheet of foam-core, which showed a nice image but was unwieldy and difficult to store. "What about a bed sheet?" I wondered. Bed sheets were endorsed on one of the many Гјbergeek websites devoted to new technology that Craig frequents, so the idea was approved. Our kindly neighbourhood crossing guard donated a nice, white, king-size sheet to the cause. We hung it with dollar store clamps from the swing set we had built the summer before and then threaded a copper rod through the hem to keep the sheet taut. A couple of well-placed cinder blocks stopped the screen from swinging in the breeze, although the sheet does occasionally billow a little. With projector, screen and sound system we had all the pieces in hand. Our two daughters, now 12 and 9, and a gaggle of assorted friends brought out sleeping bags, pillows and stuffed animals and spread out on the grass while, behind them, the parents arranged the chaise longues and appropriate beverages. Warm summer breeze ... stretched out ... free concessions in the kitchen and did I mention the cooler? This is the best way to appreciate a summer blockbuster. Randy Fisk of Coal Valley, Ill. agrees. In 2000 he launched a hobbyist website, BackyardTheater .com "chronicling my successes and failure with screen building," he says. "There wasn't much interest until 2003 or so, then I redesigned the site and added forums so those who were contacting me via email could exchange ideas." Since then the site has grown to include more than 1,200 members. Most are from the U.S., and an estimated 3 per cent are from Canada. Fisk says there are also many members from Europe and Asia, with recent interest growing in Australia. Some of the set-ups shown on the site are quite elaborate, some screens can be viewed while floating in the pool, and some even include the "Let's all go to the lobby" cartoon with dancing hot-dogs from old drive-ins. The site also includes a marketplace of eBay auctions of projectors and screens and such. Fisk attributes the growing interest to familiarity with the technology coupled with lower prices. "When I first tried this in 1995, the projector I was using cost $7,000." He also suggests the recent trend in outdoor living may be a factor. "People are building really nice outdoor kitchens and entertainment areas. This is a natural extension of that activity." Today, there are dozens of brands of portable projectors at electronics and office supply stores from manufacturers such as Epson, BenQ, Optoma and Infocus. If you shop around, you can pick up a basic SVGA (Super Video Graphics Array) projector for as low as $400. For $1,000, you can get a much brighter, higher resolution projector with HDTV capability. All projectors can accept a video signal from a standard DVD player, or if you're really aiming for nostalgia, a VCR. Last fall Infocus launched a projector with a built-in DVD player and enhanced speakers directed at family movie watching, indoors and out. Its simple plug-and-play format makes it appealing, but it is not for true film purists who demand surround sound and a crystal clear image. Both of our screen options a king-size bed sheet or a piece of foam core (available at most art supply stores) are affordable. Try a second-hand store if your crossing guard doesn't give out sheets like ours does, and while there, you might even score an old screen with stand. But the easiest screen is a light-coloured wall, such as a garage door. Recently, Open Air Cinema, a maker of inflatable products, introduced an inflatable screen designed for backyards for cheap. Just unpack it from its duffle bag, plug it in and watch it expand to 12 feet diagonal! Its popularity has landed it in Wal-Mart and Target stores in the United States, but no such luck here in Canada. Craig's initial interest in outdoor movies was sparked by the London Regional Art Gallery's Flicks at the Forks, held regularly during the '80s when we were in high school. With an old-fashioned AV club projector, they showed vintage silent movies. Craig aspires to show our children these great oldies. For now, we cave in to their incessant demands for Disney and Pixar fare, showing such kid classics as Finding Nemo, School of Rock, Pirates of the Caribbean, and for post-soccer celebrations, Bend it Like Beckham and Kicking and Screaming. But our selections have also run to the more worldly and grown-up. Last summer without the kids we watched the tearjerker Italian classic Cinema Paradiso, which features a couple of memorable outdoor movie scenes. We tend to keep the movies fairly clean, in order to not offend neighbours with loud swearing. And we try to keep volume down since the movies are likely to run close to midnight (we can't really start until it's dark enough at 10), although we seem to be in an annoying flight path, making it occasionally difficult to hear. Who knows? Maybe we'll get around to watching Star Wars this summer. Source: "Films al fresco" by Janice Biehn -Toronto Star. Read full article at:

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