Thomas J. Story

How to host your own backyard movie party

Peter O. Whiteley

A late-summer evening is the perfect time to invite a few friends over for a little stargazing - think Clint Eastwood, Kim Novak, or Bugs Bunny. It's surprisingly easy to turn your patio into an alfresco theater where you can project your favorite films, serve hot popcorn, and snack on hot dogs right off the grill. What could be better than a stay-at-home drive-in?

You may already own most of the electronic components: a DVD player (or laptop computer), amplifier, and speakers. The key missing ingredients are a good-size screen - which you can make yourself - and a video projector, which you can find at an audiovisual rental store. (One-day rentals range from about $150 to $250; prices for a good-quality projector start at around $1,000.) Amps, speakers, screens, and DVD players are also available for rent.

The setup l Top

Atmosphere counts in an outdoor theater. Decorative touches such as vintage movie posters, a mini marquee, director's chairs, and overhead lanterns or strings of lights create the right mood.

Screen. We used a 4- by 8-foot sheet of foam-core board purchased at an art-supply store, but you could substitute a piece of plywood, a large bedsheet, or simply a smooth wall. Our screen is taped to two 6-foot 1-by-2s rising from a pair of gravel-filled flowerpots. We screwed short 1-by-2 crosspieces near the bottom of each leg, burying them in the gravel to resist tipping.

Wiring. Plug the projector, DVD player, and amplifier into a power strip with a surge protector. For safety, run the extension cord from an outdoor electrical outlet with a ground-fault circuit interrupter.

Comfort. Devise amphitheater seating with different levels: pillows and blankets on the ground, benches or comfortable fold-up chairs behind them, and, at the back, taller director's chairs (from Classic Party Rentals, $15 each). On cool evenings, remind your audience to bring layers of clothing, and serve warm drinks at intermission. 

Sunset's picks for a Western film festival l Top

• A River Runs Through It
• Birdman of Alcatraz
• The Birds
• Bullitt
• Chinatown
• City Slickers
• Clueless
• Dark Passage
• Dirty Harry
• Easy Rider
• E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
• Five Easy Pieces
• From Here to Eternity
• The Game
• The Horse Whisperer
• L.A. Confidential
• Raising Arizona
• Riding Giants
• Shane
• The Shining
• Stagecoach
• Stand by Me
• Vertigo
• Zabriskie Point

Popcorn l Top

Set out fresh popcorn in paper cones and offer an array of salts and toppings in jars on a spice rack (two-shelf rack from the Container Store, $20, 800/786-7315). Here are some seasonings to try.

• Barbecue spice blend
• Butter powder
• Cinnamon sugar
• Curry powder
• Herbes de Provence
• Hot chile flakes
• Rosemary salt
• Seasoned salt
• White truffle oil

Snack bar strategies l Top

Movie-appropriate fare and clever presentation add to the ambience.

Candy buffet. Fill glass apothecary jars with colorful loose candies.

Casual choices. Serve freshly grilled hot dogs with all the condiments and sodas in wax-coated cups. Or indulge your gastronomic inner child: Party-rental stores usually have cotton-candy makers, hot-dog steamers, popcorn carts, and nacho machines on hand.

Gourmet options. Make it a foodie affair for grown-ups with champagne on ice, a platter of prosciutto and melon, take-out sushi, crostini and dips, and espresso.

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