How I Built A $160 Drive-In Movie Theatre To Hang Out With Friends While Social Distancing

How I Built A $160 Drive-In Movie Theatre To Hang Out With Friends While Social Distancing
Photo: David Tracy. Text: Jason Torchinsky

In an attempt to hang out with friends without risking the spread of coronavirus, I’ve built a drive-in movie theatre in my backyard. Here’s how I did it.

Right now, Michigan’s strict Stay-At-Home order limits travel between households, so I can’t hang out with my friends—only virtually. But even after the governor’s order lifts, it’s likely that federal social distancing guidelines will remain in place for quite some time. When that happens, I want to find a way to hang out with my friends without spreading this awful virus.

I don’t want to be limited to active, outdoor activities, because sometimes it’s nice to just chill with people and do something that requires very little thought. Like watching a movie, for example. We could do that virtually, but to me, that’s lost its lustre by now. Having folks over to watch inside my house wouldn’t really work, because I just don’t have the square footage or the screen size to allow us all to stay six feet apart. Plus, being in the same enclosed space isn’t great.

The ticket, then, is the drive-in movie theatre—a relic of the past that, through a horrible tragedy, is getting its chance at redemption. I just built a drive-in at my house, and it is awesome. Here’s what I did to make it a reality.

Buy A Projector: $80

I picked up my projector for $80 on Facebook Marketplace. I’d recommend you obtain yours some other way, as travelling to random folks’ homes to buy things may not be a smart idea right now, but I bet you can still snag one for cheap.

A cheap QKK projector, for example, only costs $150 on Amazon.

Hang A White, Wrinkle-Free Bedsheet From Your Roof

I needed to figure out what I’d project the image on, since my house has light blue aluminium siding, which is a far from optimal projection surface. My solution is pretty simple; I just grabbed a white bedsheet, threw it in the drier along with a wet washcloth to iron out the wrinkles, and then hung the sheet from my roof with binder clips.

To keep the bedsheet from flapping, I anchored its corners to two jugs of engine coolant using a couple of binder clips (see above) and a cord from a broken shop vac. It’s not perfect—you’ll notice some wrinkles in the image at the top of this section—but I’m happy with it.

The Audio Is The Tricky Part: $80

I’d been going back and forth trying to determine the best way to set up the audio. I didn’t want to use a loudspeaker, since this would bother my neighbours. Bluetooth also wouldn’t have worked, since it’s usually not set up for more than two output devices, and I was concerned about latency (nobody likes it when audio and video are not perfectly synced).

The answer to my troubles was a cheap FM transmitter from eBay. I snagged mine for $75, but it seems the same device sells for less than half that, so I may have gotten ripped off. Who knows.

But in any case, the cheap, Chinese FM transmitter works well. I simply used an auxiliary cable to hook up an audio input, then set the transmitter to a channel, and then tuned my vehicle’s radio to that channel to listen to the audio. It works pretty well, with no latency at all, though there is some noise.

Hook Up Your Laptop And Enjoy The Show

As you can see in the image above, I’ve got my FM transmitter hooked to my laptop, clipped to the back of that chair on the left, and set to channel 90.1. I’ve got the projector hooked up to the laptop via an HDMI cord, and set just the right distance from the screen.

The streamed video from the laptop is being shot against the bedsheet hanging from the roof over the back of my house, and the audio feed is being broadcast to FM channel 90.1. This means, all I have to do is drive my car into my backyard, turn the key to the auxiliary position so I can listen to radio without my engine or engine accessories running, set my radio to 90.1, and enjoy the show. Watch me do just that in the clip below:

The audio worked in my 1985 Jeep J10, 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee five-speed, and 1991 Jeep Comanche. The noise was a bit annoying, I will admit, but I think my friends and I can get used to it. Also, the video did freeze a few times, since my laptop is a bit far from my Wi-Fi router, but when movie time comes, I’ll be using a laptop with an optical drive, so I won’t have to worry about the strength of my internet connection.

I also plan to have some sanitised walkie-talkies, so we can chat. I’m not usually the type to talk much during a movie, but what’s the point of us hanging out if we’re not going to exchange some words?

I should note that, you can’t just play a movie on your wall, and run a theatre without a licence. If it’s just a small gathering of your friends, and there’s no monetary exchange, I bet it’s just fine. But broadcasting movies for the public requires paperwork, so just be careful, there.

Between the transmitter and projector, I dropped less than $160 for the setup. I’m excited to try it out.