How a movie projector helped elevate our family movie night during lockdown

This is an installment of Pandemic Purchases, a special series of personal essays about the items bought in the past year that brought the most value and joy to our lives and work while living in lockdown.

Mid-March last year, after my initial flood of anxiety when COVID-19 prompted a lockdown in our state, I felt deeply grateful we had moved to Philadelphia a few years ago. I loved living in our Brooklyn neighborhood, but just the thought of navigating remote work and school for our three daughters inside our former 750-square-foot apartment made me feel claustrophobic.

And though our new home doesn’t have a suburban-size lawn, it has a small back patio and a sprawling roof deck. (Sprawling to us, anyway, taking into account our slightly warped New York City perspective.) We turned to these spaces—up until now left pretty sparse from lack of use—to safely get a break from our walls. (We weren’t the only ones; outdoor furniture sales soared last summer, as people stayed home and made their places more comfortable.)

Besides sprucing up our space with a new couch, an outdoor rug, an umbrella, and some planters, we invested in a movie projector so we could screen movies on the roof, and it’s been our favorite, and most frequently used, pandemic purchase. 

The Stephens family using the ViewSonic M2e Smart Wi-Fi Portable Projector.
Regan Stephens

Family movie night (FMN for short) has been a mainstay in our house for years, ever since the girls were old enough to sit still long enough to watch a feature-length film. Now that they are ages 4, 5, and 9, our screenings have run the gamut from The Muppets Take Manhattan and Moana to, more recently, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and The Mandalorian. (Not technically a movie, but we devoured the action-packed episodes along with our giant bowls of buttered popcorn, and spent weeks after discussing the impossibly adorable Baby Yoda over nightly dinners.) We’ve pushed the limits on PG-13 flicks (don’t judge), and sometimes use FMN to educate the girls on the classics (The Sound of Music, The Wizard of Oz), or share some of our own childhood favorites (The Goonies, Annie, The Princess Bride).

But while most of these movies were screened in our finished basement on a standard 43-inch flat screen, the projector paved the way for loftier possibilities.

Suddenly, with no more playdates and activities for the girls, and no date nights—or even leaving the house to pick up dry cleaning—for us, life was pure monotony. The Google Calendar I keep for our family of five is full of color-coded schedules. In the span of a few days, it went from a rainbow confetti of basketball practices and birthday parties to completely clear. With little else to look forward to, the simple act of moving FMN from the basement to the open air rooftop, under the stars (or what I assume are stars, there’s too much light pollution in the city to know for sure) was epic. Our girls, cooped up in the house, attending math class and story time via Zoom, cut off from friends and anyone else who wasn’t us, were totally delighted by this novel change of scenery, as were my husband and I.

Without much else to do, we made it a big thing. We chose a movie early in the week so we could talk about it all week long (and fine, use it to bribe them a little at bedtime, while most other things were off the table). When it came time to watch on the weekend, we popped popcorn on the stove, individual bowls and custom topping for each moviegoer, and added classic movie candy to the mix, like boxes of Red Vines, Milk Duds, and Sour Patch Kids. In lieu of sometimes cramped theater seating, we sprawled out on the deck furniture, with the added bonus of unlimited pauses for bathroom breaks.

We used the projector all summer long, and extended the deck season (usually we don’t set foot up there after late September) all through the fall, and even screened a movie or two during the less frigid days of the winter, getting cozy under a pile of blankets.

Recently, we upgraded to the ViewSonic M2e. Reasonably priced and easy to use, its compact size means we can zip it into its case and set it up anywhere in the house that has a clear, light-colored backdrop. We’ve held FMN in the living room and in our bedroom, with the projector screening against a bare wall. And the built-in Harman Kardon speakers deliver a strong, clear sound, almost like you’re in a movie theater, whether we’re on the roof or in the basement.

I don’t want to sugarcoat the past year. Even with how grateful I was for our health, it was a challenging time. But one bright silver lining was more time spent with my family, especially during movie night.

My husband and I are vaccinated now, and recently we rented a movie theater with my brother and his family—the 10 of us, his family of five and ours—watching a private screening of the newest Disney flick on the big screen. The theater had reclining chairs and buckets of buttered popcorn as big as your head, and it was totally delightful. But nothing beats watching a film on our rooftop, against a backdrop of the city skyline, with my favorite people. And loads of popcorn.

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