2021’s Best Cities for Outdoor Movies

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Young couple with popcorn watching a movie in open air cinema.

Miss going to the movies but want to keep your distance? Take movie night outside — to your own backyard, a drive-in, or a dive-in at a pool or lake. 

Lawn Love ranked over 150 of the largest U.S. cities to determine the Best Cities for Outdoor Movies. We looked for cities with drive-in theaters, other outdoor screening spots, and nice weather. For those who prefer a cinematic experience at home, we also looked for big yards and access to A/V equipment rentals.

Use our rankings, spotlights on popular outdoor film venues, and practical tips to get the most out of your next moonlit movie adventure.

In this article

  1. City rankings (overall)
  2. City rankings (by type of setting)
  3. Results in depth
  4. Methodology
  5. Final thoughts: Getting the most out of outdoor movie night

City rankings (overall)

See how each city fared in our overall ranking below.

Infographic showing 2021's best cities for outdoor movies, a ranking based on access to drive-in theaters, outdoor screening venues, and yard size, and climate
Note: A total of 153 cities were ranked for Drive-In Theaters per 100,000 Residents and Other Outdoor Screening Venues per 100,000 Residents. However, the lowest-ranking positions for these metrics are 38 and 53, respectively, due to a significant number of ties for each.

City rankings (by type of setting)

See which cities are best for public outdoor-venue movies and for backyard movie nights below.

Results in depth

Fort Lauderdale: The Al Fresco Film Capital of America

Fort Lauderdale is the No. 1 city in both our overall ranking of the Best Cities for Outdoor Movies and for Public Movie Access. The Venice of America boasts more drive-in theaters per 100,000 residents than 151 big cities and ranked No. 12 for access to other outdoor screening venues.

By film industry standards, that’s considered a box-office hit for a city that’s home to (purportedly) the world’s largest drive-in theater by number of screens. The Thunderbird Drive-In, a 14-screen mega venue, is part of an 88-acre shopping and entertainment complex famously known as the Swap Shop, which also houses an admission-free Ferrari museum. 

So if you’re into outdoor flicks, Ferraris, and flea-market finds, Fort Lauderdale belongs on your bucket list — but maybe hold off on visiting until winter or spring, as FTL gets very wet (No. 143 in rainfall) between May and October.

Showing Off in the South

Seven of the 10 best cities in our ranking hail from the South. Besides Fort Lauderdale, our top acts include cities like Midland, Texas (No. 2), Chattanooga, Tennessee (No. 4), Macon, Georgia (No. 7), and Winston-Salem, North Carolina (No. 9). 

What makes the South a dream for outdoor movie fans? Oscars-worthy performances in both the Public Movie Access and Backyard Movie Access categories. Only Midland ranked in the top 10 (at No. 3) for Climate; the rest are a mixed bag. 

Baton Rouge, at No. 120, is the exception in the Public Movie Access category. But what it lacks in public venues it makes up for in private green space: Louisiana’s capital is also our capital of Backyard Movies, boasting the biggest average yard size and outperforming 125 other cities in access to A/V equipment rentals and home-theater installation services. (Popcorn not included.)

Hasta la Vista, Big City

If you live in one of the biggest cities in America, you’re better off staying inside watching Netflix. Despite their plethora of entertainment options, some of the biggest cities — like Philadelphia (No. 148), Boston (No. 149), New York City (No. 152), and Chicago (dead last) — don’t cater to outdoor movie fanatics.

These cities performed poorly across the board, especially in green space, which is a key element of an outdoor-theater setup. Yard sizes tend to be on the smaller side — if you’re lucky enough to afford land or even find it. 

That’s not to say you can’t catch a flick in any of these cities. Chicago, for instance, hosts “Water Flicks” at Navy Pier where you can soak up views of Lake Michigan, too. Film and history buff? Enjoy a courtyard screening at U.S. flag maker Betsy Ross’ historic Philadelphia house. The $7 admission includes an after-hours tour of the home.

Seattle Special

Seattle is an exception to the big cities’ collective bad rap among outdoor movie fans. Although the Emerald City came in at a dismal 150th place in our ranking, it finished No. 9 in Climate. 

Contrary to popular belief, Seattle doesn’t get a ton of annual rain, and summers tend to be sunny and dry. In fact, Seattle registers the fewest very hot days among the cities in our ranking — perfect for movie nights in the open air.

If you find yourself in the Pacific Northwest during the warm season, schedule an outdoor movie night at Peddler Brewing Company, where the show will go on — rain or shine. Visiting with the kids? Book a family-friendly moonlit movie weekend at the Space Needle. The best part? It’s free for everyone. 

Methodology

We ranked over 150 of the largest U.S. cities from best to worst (1-153) based on their overall scores (out of 100 points), averaged across the weighted metrics listed below. 

Due to wildfires currently making it unsafe to be outdoors in California cities and Boise, Idaho, we excluded these cities from our ranking. However, we included other cities near wildfires but where air quality has not been affected — particularly in Washington State and Oregon — or where air quality is improving or only unsafe for at-risk groups (people with heart or lung disease, older adults, children, and pregnant women), including Colorado cities. 

Public Access

  • Drive-In Theaters per 100,000 Residents (Weight: 3)
  • Other Outdoor Screening Venues per 100,000 Residents (Weight: 3)
  • Average Movie-Ticket Price (Weight: 2)

Backyard Access

  • Average Yard Square Footage (Weight: 3)
  • A/V Equipment Rentals and Home-Theater Installation Services per 100,000 Residents (Weight: 2)

Climate

  • Average Monthly Rain (in Inches) (Weight: 1)
  • Number of Very Hot Days (Weight: 0.5)
  • Number of Very Cold Days (Weight: 0.5)
  • Air Quality (Weight: 2)

Sources 

AreaVibes, LawnStarter, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Yelp

Final thoughts: Get the most out of outdoor movie night

Outdoor movies — drive-ins, dive-ins, and movies in the park (or the backyard) — were once a novelty. Now, back by popular demand, they’re the best alternative to traditional indoor movie theaters as the pandemic rages on.

In case you’re wondering what a “dive-in” theater is, think pool or lake party with a video screen. Yes, an Austin, Texas, theater chain offers an annual dive-in showing of “Jaws,” complete with divers pulling on movie watchers’ legs. 

To help you enjoy your next outdoor movie adventure, follow these practical tips:

For backyard movie watchers:

Learn how to DIY your backyard home theater. If you’ve never set up a silver screen on your grass, check out this helpful DIY guide. You’ll find tips on buying the right projector for your budget, finding alternatives for projector screens, and setting up audio equipment and other gear.

Mind your neighbors. Unless you live in the woods or in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where yards average just under 24,000 square feet, the folks living next door will be forced to partake in your outdoor screening night unless you warn them ahead of time. So, be a good neighbor, and give your block a heads-up. 

Alternatively, use Bluetooth headsets for audio (but that can get pricey depending on the number of guests you invite).

For public venue watchers:

Get some rest. Outdoor movies = late nights, especially in the summertime when you have to wait longer for the sun to go down. Plus, many drive-in theaters show double features. So plan for a longer evening, or get some caffeine beforehand. 

Follow the rules. Nothing can ruin an evening like being kicked out of a movie for breaking the rules. Read up on the venue’s policies beforehand — drive-ins, especially, might have restrictions on food, drinks, and even the type of vehicle allowed on the premises. Most importantly, turn off your headlights. 

Bring a portable radio. Drive-ins usually require tuning your car radio to an FM channel to hear a film’s audio. To avoid draining your car’s battery, bring a portable radio instead. Also have bug spray, water, and games handy to help pass the time while waiting for the movie to start. 

For all outdoor movie watchers:

Get creative with your comfort. Worried your date won’t like the back of your pickup? Add pizzazz to your truck bed with pillows, a mattress, or bean bags. No car? Bring a comfortable blanket or folding chair — keep in mind that you’ll be sitting for a couple of hours. If the venue allows outside food, add even more romance to the evening with a picnic. These options work great on your grass, too.

Check the weather. Remember that movie-in-the-park scene in “The Wedding Planner,” where J. Lo and Matthew McConaughey are gearing up for a smooch, but a sudden downpour ruins the moment? That’s because neither of them logged on to AccuWeather beforehand. But, as those two lovebirds learned the hard way, weather can change by the minute, so always check for inclement conditions on outdoor movie night.

Main Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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