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How to recreate the movie theater experience at home

From home projectors and vintage movie trailers to the mysterious “popcorn salt”

As we’ve all learned in the past year and a half or so, it’s hard to replace the experience of sitting in a dark room with eager strangers, watching a film on a screen the size of a building as the sound pulses through your chair and into your body. But necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention, which is why many people have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by investing in recreating that theater-going feeling at home. After all, TVs are more affordable than ever, streaming options are plentiful, and the delta variant has many of us returning to the days of mask mandates and store closures, anyway. Why not just take in a movie from your couch instead?

It makes sense, but it can also be underwhelming, at least compared to the real thing. To bring the theater experience home, you need either money or an eye for details (or both). To learn how to best approximate the movie theater experience from the confines of your own home, we sought advice from Ahbra Perry, head of Alamo On Demand, the streaming service of indie cinema group Alamo Drafthouse. Here’s what you need for your at-home movie theater.

In this article:

The right equipment

While you can certainly watch a movie on your TV, “I think it’s more fun to watch a movie off a projector,” says Perry. It’s the best way to get a truly huge screen (you probably don’t have an 8-foot wide television), and the experience just feels more movie-like. “We have a big white wall at home,” says Perry. “So we just took the posters down and now that’s our screen.”

If you have a similar situation at home, you could find a cheap multimedia projector for a couple of hundred bucks, plug it into your existing sound system and call it a day. Or you could buy a high-end, dedicated at home movie theater projector for several thousand dollars, add a pull-down screen and a new sound system. Or you could land somewhere in the middle for your home cinema. But the point is that there are all kinds of options and possible budgets when it comes to projectors and sound, so some research will be needed before designing a media room. (See the handy links below.)

Sound and vision

A traditional TV / speaker setup offers fewer choices than using a projector. If you go with a projector, screens can either be wall-mounted and pulled down, or they can be attached to a tripod. In either case, you should be able to find something for $200 or less from the usual places (like Amazon, Best Buy, Crutchfield).

As for sound, you could either buy a sound bar or plug into your existing sound system, if you have one. There’s nothing like watching a movie with surround sound. In either case, you should seriously consider adding a subwoofer (a speaker which only emits very low frequency sounds), assuming you can do so without disrupting any neighbors who live in the same building. “If you’re watching a movie with a lot of booms and explosions, you’ll need one for sure,” says Perry. Even if your viewing tastes tend to be less action-driven, a sub will contribute significantly to the immersive movie feeling — they add a lot to the sonic atmosphere.

Projectors

You will either be getting a multimedia/business projector or a dedicated home theater projector for your living room or media room. The best picture will come from the latter, but there are some caveats. For one thing, they cost more ($1,000 is considered cheap, whereas a decent multimedia projector can be had for hundreds). Another point to consider is that they require more specific circumstances to work at their best. A home theater projector is designed to be used in very low light or (ideally) darkness. If your movie watching room has blackout shades, or if you always watch movies at night, there’s no problem. But if you watch films in a space with a fair amount of ambient light, you may actually be better off with a multimedia projector: these are brighter and are designed to be used in a variety of light situations.

In either instance, try to get one with built-in streaming, WiFi capability or a USB slot that will support a streaming stick. This will mean you can watch movies without your computer and with a minimum of wires needed. If your WiFi isn’t great, consider a projector that can be hard-wired to your router for a stronger signal. It’s also useful if the projector has bluetooth, so it can connect wirelessly to your sound system.

Here is a concise guide to choosing a projector, a somewhat more in-depth one, and a rundown of the differences between home theater and multimedia projectors. Whatever you choose, consider buying used. Projectors are like digital cameras, in that new ones are constantly hitting the market, meaning there are plenty of good, not-that-old models out there looking for a home. (If you do buy used, bear in mind that the lamps wear out after a certain number of hours and need to be replaced).

“I think it’s more fun to watch a movie off a projector.”

—Ahbra Perry, head of Alamo On Demand

Some other important stuff

Of course, a true cinematic experience involves more than the film itself. Here are some things to add to the mood for your home cinema.

Trailers and advertisements

What happens before the film, such as trailers, ads and “no talking/enjoy the show”-type PSAs, adds a lot to the movie theater vibe. There are various ways to tackle that at home. The simplest is to use a streaming service like Alamo On Demand, which has what are known as “pre-shows” as part of their offering. These can be quite deep, sometimes involving interviews with crew members for a particular film or a deep dive into locations or the film’s period.

If you want to do it yourself, there are numerous websites where you can find trailers. YouTube might be your best bet, as almost everything is there and it’s easy to make playlists (like this one), which means you can essentially edit together your own pre-show, including vintage “no talking” and “enjoy the show” ads, which are also available on the site.

Seats

Google “vintage theater seats” and you will find cinema seating both old and new for sale, much of it cheap (although shipping will add cost). Wayfair has a good selection of new chairs, SeatsAndChairs has plenty of vintage, as does 1stDibs if you want to break (or at least bend) the bank.

Snacks

You don’t need our help finding cinema-appropriate candy in the supermarket, but did you know the secret ingredient in movie theater popcorn? (We didn’t). Perry believes that “you can never replace movie popcorn,” but “as long as you can find a good popcorn salt you’ll get close.” Wait — what is popcorn salt? “That’s like asking what is actually in nacho cheese,” she says. “No one really knows. It’s a special kind of salt that is probably not on a doctor’s recommended eating list, but it’s accurate for the experience.” It turns out that this mysterious substance is easily available online, so get some in the name of authenticity. (And don’t forget “popcorn butter,” if that’s your thing.) If you have a popcorn machine, even better!

Take it outside

Love an outdoor movie night? With the right home theater setup, you can make it happen. A home is not defined by the limits of a house, and neither is a home theater; in fact, there’s no reason for your home theater to be indoors at all. “During the pandemic, my dad started doing backyard screenings for his neighborhood,” says Perry. “He bought an inflatable screen, a $200 dollar projector and a big old sound bar.” If you have a yard, rooftop or other outdoor space, you can do the same. (And if you want to take it to the next level, get some burgers so you can Netflix and Grill. Sorry.) Having an outdoor movie night is fun, and they’re also a relatively low-risk way to get people together during the COVID era — and if you do it right, your home theater should endure long after the pandemic has receded.

The bottom line is, wherever you want to put in your home theater, and whatever you want to spend on it, there’s a way for you to get close to the magic of the movies without actually going to the movies.

Haven Life Insurance Agency offers this as educational information only and does not endorse the companies, products, services or strategies discussed here. 

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Haven Life is a customer-centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our editorial policy

Haven Life is a customer centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our content is created for educational purposes only. Haven Life does not endorse the companies, products, services or strategies discussed here, but we hope they can make your life a little less hard if they are a fit for your situation.

Haven Life is not authorized to give tax, legal or investment advice. This material is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for tax, legal, or investment advice. Individuals are encouraged to seed advice from their own tax or legal counsel.

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Haven Term is a Term Life Insurance Policy (DTC and ICC17DTC in certain states, including NC) issued by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual), Springfield, MA 01111-0001 and offered exclusively through Haven Life Insurance Agency, LLC. In NY, Haven Term is DTC-NY 1017. In CA, Haven Term is DTC-CA 042017. Haven Term Simplified is a Simplified Issue Term Life Insurance Policy (ICC19PCM-SI 0819 in certain states, including NC) issued by the C.M. Life Insurance Company, Enfield, CT 06082. Policy and rider form numbers and features may vary by state and may not be available in all states. Our Agency license number in California is OK71922 and in Arkansas 100139527.

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