How to Create a Movie-Lover’s Yard
See how a couple turned their yard into the neighborhood’s most popular theater
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Design: Mark Tessier Landscape Architecture, Santa Monica;
When Rika Houston knocks on doors to invite neighbors over for an impromptu screening, she’s never short of takers. Located in the front yard of the Los Angeles home she shares with her husband, architect Brian Ten, the cinema is unlike any other in town. Sinking into the cushy sofa with lanterns lit overhead, guests watch The Birds or The Sound of Music on a screen nearly as big as the garage wall. “In the summer, every Friday is movie night,” says Houston.
With the help of landscape architect Mark Tessier, Ten overhauled their yard to create a gathering spot for the family, which includes 9-year-old daughter Maya and teenage sons Cole and Taro. But as movie night took off, the couple has been happy to see how it has transformed the neighborhood too. “It’s one thing to bump into someone on the street and share a few words,” says Ten. “With this outdoor theater, we’ve gotten to know our neighbors much better.”
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With its scraggly lawn and rickety fence, the yard looked neglected.
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After: Party-ready yard
Outdoor A/V system. Rigging up a white canvas tarp for movies was such a hit, Ten decided to permanently link his entertainment system to a projector via underground cables. “Anything we can watch indoors, we can watch outdoors,” he says.
Lounge area. Seating for up to 12 and a firepit with room for plates and glasses encourage lounging. “I wanted a big living room–style sofa that works outdoors,” says Houston. For extra guests, she puts cushions on the lid of their daughter’s old sandbox.
Spaces for all ages. For their daughter, the couple built a toy closet and a fountain for water play. Their teenage sons often hook the PlayStation up to the screen, or play basketball on the other side of the yard.
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Making an entrance
While the action is largely inside the yard, its exterior was also designed to be neighborly. The redwood fence provides privacy, while glass inserts let in light during the day and glow when the yard is lit at night.
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Planting eye candy
The fence’s 20-foot setback allows room for native and Mediterranean plants, a treat for passersby. Silvery plants grow in the foreground, while salvias, succulents, Dudleya, and an Arbutus ‘Marina’ tree line the entry.
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An inviting ambience
A trough with a fountain on each end visually connects the entry garden to the interior patio. A bonus: Dogs love it. “They stop for a drink when they’re out on walks,” says Ten.
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The large sofa is covered in a commercial-grade Sunbrella fabric that’s tough enough to handle frequent crowds and the occasional spilled drink. The clean-burning gas firepit is ringed with a wide band of concrete, so it doubles as a table.
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Planting inner-sanctum gems
“Most of the plants in the interior were chosen to be quiet backdrops. But the angel’s trumpet adds a delicious scent,” says landscape designer Tessier.
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Ten took his setup very seriously, connecting an LCD projector to his indoor entertainment center via underground cables. Outdoor speakers are mounted to a fence behind the bamboo. The movie screen hangs on the garage wall 15 feet away and rolls up into a sheet-metal cover under the eaves when not in use.
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A built-in cabinet near the entry provides a place to stash Maya’s toys before guests arrive, and holds all the controls to the lighting.
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Host your own backyard movie
Got a sheet? A DVD player? You’re well on your way to hosting an outdoor movie night.
Hook up your existing electronics. Connect your laptop to a projector and some small speakers, or your DVD player to a projector and amplified speakers, and plug each item into a power strip with a surge protector. For safety, run extension cords from an outdoor outlet with a ground-fault circuit interrupter.
Improve a screen. Hanging a white bedsheet against the wall is the cheapest substitute for a screen. Or mount a 4- by 8-foot sheet of foam-core board from an art store.
Rent a theater. You can rent a screen, amplifier, projector, and speakers from some electronics stores and companies like (from $299).
Ready to commit? Companies such as and can help you choose a projector and screen for your space, as well as calculate the distance between the two.