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How to start your own drive-in

The Mobile Movie project has grown beyond my wildest imagination. I watched as the thing I built for my friends and I evolve into a movement with over 300 drive-ins worldwide (thanks in part to this guide). MobMov has been covered by major media outlets the world over.

This guide was originally written in 2006, but I try to keep it updated as technology evolves. I most recently updated this guide in 2021.

What is a “MobMov”?

A “mobile movie” or MobMov for short, is quite simply a drive-in that drives-in. Participating in a MobMov is very similar to attending a drive-in from the days of old, except now the projector is located inside a car, and the audio is piped in stereo over the FM band to the attendees’ cars.

As a MobMov driver, you assemble the kit, decide on the movies, and announce your showings to friends and the community at large via email, twitter, or any medium you choose. Then everyone assembles in a dark place with a big wall, and you watch a movie.

It’s a new technological twist to a nostalgic idea.

Why start one in your town?

If you’re a movie geek like me, a large part of the satisfaction of running a MobMov will come from actually setting up the kit. If so, this tutorial will be fun, if not disappointingly easy. If you’re not, it’s my hope that this tutorial gets you through the painful bits so you can just enjoy the end product!

This is a wonderful time for drive-ins to thrive. With the pandemic, drive-ins are a safe way for people to share an experience and community.

One of the first shows was projected through fog onto the Academy of Science in Berkeley.

The challenge of creating something completely new was what inspired me to start the Mobile Movie in the first place. But when word spread and membership widened, I realized that the real reward came from meeting all the interesting people who came to my showings.

The MobMov attracts a friendly lot, full of stories and ideas. If not for this project, I wouldn’t have gotten to know them. The MobMov is a community experience, a place for people to gather and share in the splendor of the great American movie. That sounds like a pretty worthy hobby to me.

Disclaimer

Please always use your best judgment and skip any directions that sound too complicated or dangerous. Additionally, running a MobMov may open up a legal can of worms that I will do my best to explain below – but I am not a lawyer and your experience may vary.

You must respect copyright, ordinance, and trespassing laws. I am not responsible for anything you do as a result of reading this tutorial – I write this for informational purposes only, for free, without warranty of outcome.

Getting started

I’m going to assume that coming into this you know relatively little about electronics, cars, or projectors, because I didn’t when I built the first MobMov. If you’re an expert in these areas, please excuse the occasional condescension, and kindly correct my mistakes!

What follows is a list of components you will need to set up a MobMov of your own. You can substitute components as you see fit, this is just a list of what I use and which works for me.

Cyberpunk urban theatre, here we come!

Car

Your car is really the vital element to any true MobMov set up. You could set up an outdoor movie like the Santa Cruz Guerrilla Drive-in with a bunch of marine batteries and a shopping cart, but that isn’t a MobMov, now is it? Part of the magic is pulling up in your own car and starting the show. These days I also recommend checking out a battery generator with incorporates an inverter into a deep cycle battery.

The ideal car will have a large windshield, and either a large flat dash on which to place the projector or have some other way of mounting the projector inside. In my small SUV I use an stool from IKEA, sitting between my dash and the passenger seat.

I sometimes mount the projector on my roof which can result in a better picture, but you risk exposure to the elements which can be dangerous to your equipment.

Powering your MobMov

I used to recommend powering your projector directly from your car. With the increasing complexity of car power systems and EV cars, this probably won’t be a practical option for you.

Before deciding which power option is best for you, it’s important to understand how much power you need. If you want to figure out how long your battery solution might last, here’s a useful equation:

volts x amps = watts

So if your battery is rated at 40 amp-hours, at 12V, that’s 12 x 40, or about 480w. To simplify things, that means if my equipment uses 240w total, I will have a runtime of about 2 hours. Of course you never want to deplete your battery completely. Here is an interesting tutorial on batteries that might explain this a little better.

The bottom line is that you will not have a runtime of two hours on a standard car battery. Marine batteries are much more powerful, but you’ll still need a couple for a full-length feature.

Fortunately there are some good power options to choose from:

Battery “Generator”

There is a new class of products called battery generators, which are actually just large batteries with built-in inverters. They can’t generate more electricity, but many are large enough to power a projector for a two hour film. If you can afford it, this is actually a really nice alternative option to consider because it is quiet and easy.

I use and recommend: Duracell Battery Generator.

Car Battery + Inverter

Your car’s alternator can produce enough power to keep your car’s battery charged while it is running. Probably the easiest option is to power your projector using your car’s power and the engine running.

If you choose this route, your car also must have a powerful alternator capable of generating a constant 150w or more. The alternator in my original projector car was only capable of generating 150w (according to those I asked at Toyota) but it worked fine for my projector. You should be careful not to exceed these limits as it can damage your car and void your warranty.

Gas Generator

You can also power your kit directly from a generator, but that can be really noisy. This can attract attention and cause noise for any neighbors, and it makes the experience less pleasant for anyone outside. If you decide to go this route, I recommend a quiet generator like the Yamaha line of generators.

Deep Cycle Batteries + Inverter

You can hook up a Deep Cycle Marine Battery to an inverter and achieve enough power for about half a movie. Change it out during intermission and this setup is affordable but a little cumbersome. If you go this route, you will need a power inverter.

About Power Inverters

If you are powering your MobMov with batteries or your car, you’ll also need an inverter. Be careful though, power inverter marketing isn’t very honest.

Be weary of “peak” output, the number they often list in glittery bold red, as it is always followed by a tiny grey asterisk. This means the inverter can’t actually achieve this power rating for anything longer than a few seconds.

Look instead for “continuous” power rating (usually in small print), which will be an indicator for your total power output. It’s safe to assume they also inflate this figure. I tried several 800w inverters that didn’t work before finding the Coleman I now use.

You should always buy more than you need in this department. While your system may be capable of running on 300w, buying a 300w inverter will assuredly not cut it. My set up requires about 240w total, and I have an 800w inverter to be conservative and not overload the system.

It’s imperative that you buy and inverter that connects directly to your car battery. Do NOT attempt to run your projector off your 12v socket. It will not work and you will blow a fuse or cause a fire. The amperage is just too high. To figure out amps, divide wattage by voltage. So if your projector takes 240w, at home you only need 2 amps (240/120), but in the car you’ll need a whopping 20 amps! (240/12). Your 15amp fuse will not enjoy this punishment.

Finally, it is important to purchase a “pure sine wave” inverter. A modified sine or lesser inverter can damage your sensitive equipment.

I use and recommend: Pure Sine Wave Power Inverter

Projector

For a really good show, you’re going to need a really good projector. Luckily, projector technology is advancing at a rapid rate – with prices plummeting and specs skyrocketing, it’s getting harder to go wrong. That said, there are specific features that will make your job as a mobmov driver much easier – and so make your shows all the much better.

First, you need some really high light output (rated in lumens). This all really boils down to your two budgets – the wallet sort, and your power budget – how much total wattage you can sustain without giving your car battery a heart attack.

Let’s start then with what I know works. I use and love the Epson Powerlite Home Cinema line of projectors. They are affordable with high lumen and contrast.

Consumer projectors like the Epson are still distant cousins of the 25,000 lumen projectors you see at rock concerts, but you don’t need that kind of light output. If anything, 1200 ANSI lumens is a good minimum. I started out with the ancient InFocus 4805. A very good projector certainly, but at 750 lumens, I found that even a bright street lamp washed out the colors.

1500 lumens is pretty gosh darn perfect by comparison; while pre-sunset showings are still out of the question, twilight isn’t as much a problem as it was with either the InFocus or the Panasonic. 3000+ will be sublime.

Be *very* weary of lumen ratings though. Worse than power inverter output ratings are lumen ratings – it’s safe to assume most manufacturers inflate their lumen ratings by 100% or more. Always check online reviews at projectorcentral.com. For example, the Panasonic comes in at about 900, and InFocus at about 400. Epson tends to be very honest about their ratings, and sure enough it comes in at 1450. Be especially wary of “business” projectors, which are cheap but have high lumen ratings. Oftentimes, after you adjust them so you can actually see the image, their lumen output is much lower.

Should you get a Laser, LCD or DLP Projector?

This does seem to be the question at the moment when it comes to projector technology. On one side, you have DLP, which traditionally offered better contrast than LCD. Pictures produced by LCDs would appear muddy in a darkened room. Today, the playing field has all but leveled out in this area, with the introduction of fast dynamic irises, which adjust to the brightness of a scene.

The Epson, a modern 3-LCD projector with a dynamic iris, has 5000:1 contrast, which is ample to my discerning eyes. A similar LCD projector, the Mitsubishi HC3, produced only four years ago, has a fairly yucky 500:1 contrast. While lumens should remain your highest concern, having better contrast means better color on less-than-optimal viewing surfaces (like that warehouse wall you have your eyes on). But in my humble opinion, LCD and DLP technologies are pretty much even. You might hear some complaints about a DLP “rainbow effect”, but other than that, the differences in price/features you saw in the past have pretty much leveled out. So choose whatever one fits your needs and budget. Read this article for an even more detailed explanation of the differences you can expect.

Going back to my own projector, and trying hard not to sound like a car salesman, the Epson extrudes far more virtues that make it ideally suited for the mobmov kit. First, it has a 16:9 (WXGA) widescreen ratio a *must* for that cinema experience. Most new projectors have it, so if you can afford it, choose a 16:9.

Second, the Epson has a very flexible lens. Not as flexible as the Panasonic of yore, but it can also lens zoom AND lens shift, which is pretty unheard-of among consumer-level projectors. What does this mean? Basically it allows you to plop your projector on your dash or roof, drive up, and aim lens anywhere on the wall without having to lower the psi in your front tires to get the image centered. This makes set up easier. The zoom is particularly helpful, because it will allow you to park at different throw lengths from the wall, depending on where you’re showing. I’m not kidding when I say I think this combo is even more important than a high lumen rating, at least for a mobmov kit. It also features keystoning, a handy feature which allows you to project onto less-than-flat surfaces while still retaining a square picture. Pretty amazing to see. Imagine watching a perfectly square movie on a hill. It almost looks 3D! Though I must say it is tough taking Al Pacino seriously with grass growing from his head.

When looking for a projector that will make your job easier, look for at least 1.5x zoom lens, horizontal and vertical lens shift, and keystoning.

At 20dB, the Epson is also difficult to hear, meaning it’s easier to watch the movie in your own car. I always advocate inviting yourself into other peoples’ cars instead, but this leaves you the option in case they smell funny. Most projectors have noisy fans that just spoil the experience.

Lastly, it has low power consumption. Look for units that use less watts or you’ll be going through batteries.

I use and recommend: Epson Powerlite Home Cinema

Laptop or DVD Player

You actually have a lot of options in this realm. I currently project movies using my old mac laptop. Laptops are great for this purpose because you have lots of options, they don’t use much power, and you have a second screen on which to preview your material before projecting it.

If you don’t want to use a laptop, any DVD player will do. I used to use and still recommend the this small and affordable DVD player.

FM Transmitter

You need is a “semi-professional” FM transmitter to be able to transmit to other cars. I use the Ramsey FM25b, but is no longer manufactured.

This FM transmitter on Amazon has the same range and power as my unit and would work for your setup.

That said, you should be clear about all FCC rules before setting up your kit. It is my understanding that you are okay if you are not interfering with any licensed radio station in the area. This can be very tricky though, because some –especially on the lower part of the 88 band—are really weak and require large antennas to pick up. If your transmission interferes with any of these and you are reported, the FCC will hunt you down and revoke your after-dinner TV privileges for a week! Or something like that.

But all your radio transmitting power is for naught if you don’t broadcast from *above* your receiving antennas. FM expands like an umbrella underneath the transmission antenna, so placing the transmitter inside your car will result in severely reduced transmission strength.

You have two options: For easiest set up and to protect your transmitter from condensation, you should buy an external antenna to attach it to the outside of your vehicle. Ramsey makes many such antennas that would work, but you can also fashion your own for next to nothing using tutorials available on the web (such as). I actually take the less recommended slash ghetto approach, by setting the transmitter on the roof of my car. I’ve actually driven off with the transmitter on top of my car, so you can start to see why this is not my top recommended solution.

If you have some technical know-how, you might consider building a transmitter of your own and saving a few bucks. Rico Thunder from the Santa Cruz GDI offers us this link as a place to get started.

It is my layman’s understanding that the FCC permits unlicensed broadcasts as long as they are under a certain power and do not interfere with existing radio stations. But this is a very simplified understanding, so please, don’t take my word for it, and check this with the FCC rules.

Setting it all up

There’s really no magic to connecting all these components together. Video out to video in, audio out to audio in, power out to power in. That’s about it. Electronic interference has suddenly become your worst enemy though, thanks to that fiddly FM transmitter, so when making your purchases keep in mind that shorter, thicker cabling is better.

Running a show

I don’t profess to have arrived at the “best way” to run a mobmov. But, after two dozen or so showings, this is how I do it now, and it seems work well.

Getting the word out

I announce showings online through a mailing list software I created. If you’re interested in using this software, sign up to be an official mobmov chapter. I’ll set you up and give you access to the member control panel. It’s all free.

You can of course try new inventive forms of advertising that I have yet to attempt – why not post some appropriately campy posters around town? Believe it or not, some movie licensors actively prohibit some forms of non-theatrical publicity, so be careful.

Getting set up

I generally try to arrive a few minutes ahead of time, mostly because I know if I do, I’ll actually arrive on time. My particular set up is so easy to connect though (most of it stays connected), that it takes me all of about 3-5 minutes to get going. This is actually part of what I think makes the mobmov such a success – if it took me 30 minutes to haul out a projector and batteries, I’d do it a lot less often.

While I’m setting up, I have a mobmov welcome title showing from my laptop, so people know that “this is the spot” and what radio station to tune to. Sign up to be a chapter and you’ll get free access to these files.

I usually park in the front-center, and cars will generally line up to both sides first, and then to the back when the front row fills up. My car is rather tall, so that limits the number of people that can park directly behind me.

The showing

I’ll generally wait 5-10 minutes after the announced showing time. During this time I show an intro title with information on the movement, and play some good music in the background to let everyone figure out the radio reception and talk to me if they need help. There’s never been a problem with reception, but I always like to take the time to introduce myself to new cars anyway and make sure everyone is good to go.

Then I start up on the openers. These usually consist of one or two old-school B&W commercials and a cartoon or other short film. Sometimes this is a newsreel. All of these can be found on archive.org in the public domain. The movie ends up starting about 20 minutes after the announced showtime, which seems to work for everyone. The openers play a large role in setting up the aire of nostalgia and I’ve gotten a lot of good comments about them.

Intermission

In my opinion, the intermission is really the most vital component to an enjoyable mobmov experience. About mid-way through the movie (usually at a cliff-hanger if I can find one), we break for a 10 minute intermission. A title pops up with some good music, and people are encouraged on-screen to get up and meet people, say hello to the driver, buy some snacks, and donate if they can. Fueled by such an intoxicating atmosphere, I find that people are anxious to do all of this with gusto.

Donations

I usually tell people on-screen during the intermission that there is a donation mug on the lead car, and ask them to contribute a few bucks to help support costs like gas and projector bulb replacement. People have been quite generous in the past. Be wary of charging mandatory admission though – not only will this water-down the plebeian atmosphere of the whole thing, but may get you in trouble depending on your licensing agreements for the movie you’re showing.

Snacks

Selling snacks is a good way to recoup some costs without directly asking for money.

I usually head down to Costco the night before and grab a big bag of pretzels or assorted chips, along with some candy bars and other movietime snacks. Recently I’ve started giving out the chips for free (they cost me hardly anything) and sell the candy bars and soda for a buck apiece. This gets people down to the “snack bar” to buy the other stuff, and I think it makes them more generous with the donations. Plus, it’s just a good thing to do. If you figure out how to get fresh, hot popcorn to a showing, let me know! That would be the killer mobmov app.

Copyright

The bottom line is that you must respect the copyrights of the movies you show – just because you aren’t charging admission doesn’t mean that you can show the movie without paying for its use. I personally have had the best luck contacting the studios directly. They are usually so excited by the idea, that they approve it for a limited audience without charging any fees. Your mileage my vary; mine has.

A lot of movie studios will just direct you to an independent licensing house, which is usually a dead end. Most movie licensing houses do not permit outdoor showings of films, even if you offer them lots of money. Without attempting to preach, it’s a very silly and outdated system.

Swank Pictures is the only movie distributor that I know of that will license non-theatrical outdoor showings (non-theatrical means that you don’t charge admission). They have a bazillion rules, including a stipulation that you must show in a constant location. Licensing fees, though, are quite affordable: ranging from $100-$300 depending on the movie. You should contact them to set up an account if you wish to take this route.

That said, there are numerous sources of freely available creative commons movies and media available online. Check out archive.org for listings of such movies.

What about the police?

From my experience, the police are not too concerned about mobmov activities. It is very clear at a glance what we are doing, and that it is safe and legal. But I always bring along any licensing documents to prove myself just in case of inquiry.

In the course of running my own mobmov, there have been two police drive-bys. Both times, the friendly cop slowed down for a harrowing few seconds, took shape of the scene, and then drove on their merry way. I suppose that at 10pm at night in a dark area of town, we really are the least of their worries. If anything, our presence makes it safer. However, there are three main points to keep in mind to minimize the possibility of attracting (negative) police attention:

  • Noise pollution: One of the important features of a mobmov is there is usually a very low level of noise generated. Outdoor movies, on the other hand, must blare their audio over loudspeakers. This sort of distraction is the kind of thing that will attract the attention of the police, but as a mobmov owner you can be less wary. Even still, a mobmov showing can be very noisy depending on the environment and the patrons. Keep an ear on it and you should be okay.
  • Light pollution: Always be very keen about where you show your movie. I’d highly recommend against showing in a residential area or –worse- on a residential building. This can generate some very strong complaints, and might get you fined for disturbing the peace.
  • Trespassing: If you will be inviting cars into a parking lot or other space owned by someone other than you, make sure you get permission to show there first. We’ve had reasonable success projecting onto dimly lit walls from the street, so that no one is parked on private property. As far as I’m aware, there is yet no law prohibiting trespassing with light. Please be aware that any public property, such as schools or parks, are usually heavily guarded against after-hours trespassing and abuse. You will very likely be dispersed and questioned if caught showing a movie on public grounds. When in doubt, check with the city or your local police.

Our friend Rico has a good suggestion: if you will be showing where there may be neighbors, you should consider informing them ahead of time and inviting them to attend. Not only may you grow your audience, but if people know about it and feel included they’ll be less likely to cause a fuss.

More resources

Check out our guide on instructables.com

Credits and Appreciation

Special thanks goes to my friend Jonathan Hey for generously lending his ample artistic talents to this endeavor. He drew the sketch you see at the top of this tutorial and created the playful mobmov jingle you hear at the beginning of every show.

I’d also like to thank all those who’ve been with me since the beginning, egging me on and giving me great ideas – my friends Menzies Chen, Kim Knight, and Ray Kohno come to mind. Menzies deserves particular kudos for actually coming up with the term “mobmov”!

Also, thank you to Rico Thunder of the Santa Cruz Guerilla Drive-in, not only for inspiring me to begin this project in the first place, but for all his support and assistance along the way.

Lastly, I’d like to thank all those who have and will come to a mobmov showing, and all those that venture out to create one of their own – you are my inspiration!