How to Have Best Outdoor Movie Night in Northern Michigan

Let nature dim the lights as your yard sets the stage. Here are tips, popcorn recipes and more on how to have an awesome outdoor movie night in Northern Michigan.

You might expect a Northern Michigan novelist and his Realtor wife to plot out a memorable backyard movie party.

The “characters” at Richard and Debra Hall’s legendary backyard movie nights are their assembled friends (as many as 50, but your house will dictate the size of your guest list and screen). Their setting includes an inflatable movie screen they found online, a small projector and a projector screen (though a large white sheet or fleece blanket works in a pinch). They flavored the plot with a purchased hot dog machine, like you’d find at the drive-in, and popcorn, of course. And at their gatherings, there may even be a bit of costuming—at the screening of “Back to the Future,” guests dressed to represent a decade past.

In Northern Michigan, movie party options are only limited by the imagination. Warm September nights extend the option of a backyard party well into fall, and shorter days allow you to start the show as early as 8 p.m.—maybe even plan in a double feature.

Pro Tips for Outdoor Movie Nights

Here are a few tips for throwing your own outdoor movie night under the stars—drive-in style, or with blankets and lawn chairs.

Splurge on a rental, especially if you want to try out the concept before investing in a projector and speakers. A+ Entertains of Petoskey picked up on the interest in home movies and now rents everything you need. They have an HD projector that can show 3D movies as well, and they also bring a 16-foot screen, a theater sound system and vintage popcorn machines and popcorn bags. ($150 within an hour’s drive of Petoskey; an additional charge for farther travel).

Make a candy counter. A card table covered with a red table cloth will work just fine; worth the investment is a little candy display holder and, of course, movie-sized boxes of the classics. Get a volunteer to play usher the authentic way, with a thrift-store vest and a white- striped paper vendor’s hat.

If your speaker system allows the sound to carry far enough, and if you have space for parking, make it a drive-in. Let people sit in cars, vans or pickup trucks decked out with a mattress and blankets.

Add a special twist. The Lively family of Burdickville is known for throwing creative bashes, and a regular gathering of friends who play music morphed into the LivelyLands Music Festival. But friends also love them for movie nights that tend to lean toward baseball flicks, fitting because their “theater” is atop their Wiffle ball field. Their formula for fun is a sunset ball game, hot dog roast over a bonfire and then the main event. “We also stock a few old Looney Tunes and Mickey Mouse short videos that play before the feature film, like they do at the drive-in,” Jim Lively says.

Outdoor Movie Night Tip: You can stream a movie online if you’re showing the film close enough to a home’s WiFi; otherwise, pop in a DVD.

Up Your Popcorn Game

The first steam-powered portable popcorn maker hit streets across the United States back in 1885, and street vendors would stand outside fairs, sporting events and circuses, luring customers with the wafting smell. Movie theaters snubbed this popular snack at the time, not wanting to see the kernels ground into the fancy theater carpets of the day or film dialogue interrupted by crunching.

But then came the Great Depression, and audiences who flocked to the cheap diversion of the movies also loved the 5-cents-a-bag treat they could afford, says Andrew Smith, author of “Popped Culture,” a history of popcorn. The theaters offering popcorn were the ones whose profits soared—and the concession stand behind the ticket counter was born.

Read Next: Cherry Bowl Drive-In is a Northern Michigan Summer Tradition

A yard is an even better place to serve the treat, and while just the smell of popcorn (with plenty of butter) is likely all you’ll really need for movie night success, it’s fun to up your popping—and topping—game.

Pick up any of 60 flavors, pre-popped and ready to go, at the popular Pop-Kies Gourmet Popcorn on Traverse City’s Front Street. Serve your movie guests the Front Street Blend of caramel corn and cheddar, or bags mixed with cherries and chocolate. Owner Amy Gembis also recommends popping your own from their classic recipe (find the recipe below!) and topping it with one of their dozens of pre-mixed seasonings (dill pickle is the bestseller, followed by white cheddar and Parmesan garlic)—or a creation of your own.

Pop-Kies Perfect Popcorn

Recipe by Amy Gembis // Pop-Kies Gourmet Popcorn

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup coconut oil
  • 1/2 cup raw corn of your choice
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Seasoning of choice
  • Melted butter (optional)
  • Add-ins like dried cherries, pretzels, M&Ms, etc. (optional)

Preparation: In a crank-handled popper, movie popper or sturdy stockpot: Heat 1⁄4 cup oil over medium-high heat (coconut oil has a higher smoking point, so the corn doesn’t burn as easily). Heat oil with about five kernels of corn with lid on, and when they pop, add the rest of the corn (1⁄2 cup, or two parts corn to one part oil). Shake pot periodically using oven mitts and holding lid on tightly until most of the popping stops. Add about 1 teaspoon salt and other seasonings if desired. It’s ideal to add seasonings when the popcorn is still warm, especially if you’re using oil or butter as opposed to making your corn in an air popper. Drizzle melted butter if you’d like.

Outdoor Movie Night Tip: Let guests choose their seasonings or combine options—white cheddar and jalapeño or dill pickle with ranch. Consider offering individual bowls with mix-in options like chocolate chips, peanuts, Reese’s Pieces and more.

The flavor’s in the corn …

Amy likes to use mushroom popcorn, which she sells at Pop-Kies, because the kernels pop up large—like a mushroom—and the surface space allows for the adherence of a lot of butter and seasoning. But the options don’t stop there. Karen Pontius, owner of Suttons Bay Trading Company, has been selling popcorn throughout the 20 years she’s been in business, as well as hand-crank poppers and custom seasoning blends. She recommends her miniature white popcorn if you like your corn sweeter (like corn on the cob), but also carries traditional yellow, red, blue and rainbow varieties. Karen shares a caramel corn recipe with us, below. 

Classic Caramel Corn

Recipe by Karen Pontius // Suttons Bay Trading Company

Ingredients

  • 1 cup butter
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 10 cups popped corn

Preparation

Melt butter over medium heat, add light brown sugar and stir to a boil. Cook five minutes more without stirring, adding the vanilla at the four-minute mark. At the five-minute mark, add baking soda to aerate the caramel and make it easier to coat the popcorn. Drizzle mixture over popped corn.

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