This week I've been sharing the outdoor movie party I hosted with my friend Beth, and today I'm going to give you a full look at how we transformed her tiny backyard into a cozy outdoor living room perfect for movie-watching under the stars. We wanted to give our friends the full outdoor summer movie screening experience, but with lots of homemade touches to make it more personal than the usual movie in the park.
Being movie nerds, my friends and I have often kicked around the idea of throwing a party like this, but we never got around to making it happen. Don't make our mistake! This is a gathering that feels special, yet doesn't have to involve too much extra work for you. Want to see how we made it happen?
The Day Before
In the days leading up to a party, I always try to make ahead as much of the food and drink as I can. Since the menu for this party was snack-focused and fairly simple, I spent the afternoon before making the Dark Chocolate and Nutella Puppy Chow and two batches of Homemade Cracker Jack and stored both in big airtight containers.
I also printed out the popcorn bag labels and menu and refrigerated all the root beer and stout we needed for the floats. In the week leading up to the party, Beth and I had spent a lot of time getting organized and making lists of who was responsible for what, so the day before the party wasn't too hectic.
The Day of the Party
The morning of the party, I stopped by the farmers market to buy carrots, celery, cucumbers and herbs for the crudité cups with yogurt dip. Beth and I planned on assembling the cups together before guests arrived, so all I had to do at home was make the a couple quarts of the dip. (This type of dip usually tastes better after a few hours in the fridge anyway.)
My husband Rob and I stopped to pick up a couple giant bags of ice on the way to Beth and Tony's. We each had our assignments before the party started.
Tony & Rob:
Anjali & Beth:
- Get the drinks chilling in the drink tubs
- Set up the movie screen, projector and speakers
- Find movie trailers from 1982 and put them on a DVD to screen before the movie
- Make the Olive Oil & Sea Salt Popcorn
- Cut up the vegetables and assemble the cups
- Label the popcorn bags
- Set up the food table
- Set up the drinks table
- Put out the blankets and chairs
The Audio-Visual Set-up
We borrowed a screen and speakers from a friend, who had a very simple system: a projector with inputs for a DVD player and outputs for sound, and a screen on a stand. We hooked it up to Beth and Tony's DVD player and made sure everything worked a couple days before the party. Lucky for us, Tony is a wedding DJ, so he set up a large speaker in front of the screen and one further back, so everyone could hear the movie clearly. (I'll have more advice for the technical side of setting up an outdoor movie later this week.)
Beth and I were a little concerned about the sound disturbing the neighbors, but the noise was well contained within the walls of their yard during the party and they received no complaints.
We moved Beth and Tony's outdoor dining table to a paved corner next to the house and used that for the food. Beth found two inexpensive baskets, which we lined with brown parchment paper and filled with popcorn and homemade Cracker Jack. The paper popcorn bags and metal scoops were placed nearby so guests could serve themselves popcorn.
Trays held boxes of candy and the crudité cups and we filled big white bowls with Nutella puppy chow and Reese's Pieces. With all the sweetness on the menu, I figured people would want a steady supply of water, so we had a big jug of cold water with lemon slices and raspberries, which echoed the colors around the party.
Beth had the idea of finding a print of a full moon and adding it to the table as a subtle nod to the movie we were watching. I loved it.
The beer and sodas were kept on ice in a big galvanized bucket, right next to an old steamer trunk that Beth repurposed as a drinks station with cups, straws, a bottle opener and the wine.
Beth and I wanted to make sure we had rugs or blankets for people who wanted to lounge on the lawn and chairs for people who felt more comfortable sitting up (especially for our 7-months-pregnant friend!) once the movie started. Part of the yard is covered with brick, so we needed low chairs that would still allow people sitting on blankets in the back to see.
Beth found the perfect low, comfortable lawn chairs at Target — for only $6 each! — and scooped up six of them a few weeks before the party. We added a couple inexpensive outdoor chairs from IKEA, along with a comfortable chair from her living room and a leather butterfly chair from my apartment.
On the grass, we used two giant cotton canvas drop-cloths I bought from Amazon several years ago. They are pretty much the perfect outdoor blankets: sturdy, good-looking, inexpensive, and quite soft after washing. Beth added an outdoor rug and a vintage wool blanket, plus a mix of pillows from our own apartments and borrowed from friends. (We also told guests to bring their own pillows if they planned on sitting on the ground.)
She placed a few wood crates and some side tables from her apartment around the yard, so even those sitting on the grass had a safe place to put their drinks, and topped a few with votive candles and flowers. We also popped some candles into vintage blue Ball jars and lined them up along the wood fence surrounding the yard.
Movie-watching is synonymous with snacking, so I made a mix of sweet and savory snacks for people to munch on before and during the movie. I wanted it to be easy for guests to carry their food to their seats, so there were paper lunch bags for the two types of popcorn and white glassine bags for the Nutella puppy chow and Reese's Pieces. The crudité and dip was preassembled in individual cups, with a layer of dip at the bottom and the vegetable sticks on top. I had intended to put out extra dip and veggies so people could replenish their cups, but I underestimated the number of vegetables I would need, so there weren't enough after making the cups.
One aspect of the menu I knew was non-negotiable: there had to be regular popcorn and caramel corn of some sort. That's because Rob (my husband), Tony (Beth's husband) and two of their friends have a movie podcast, Film or Movie, which uses a rating system based on "mux" rather than stars.
What is mux? It's a ridiculously munchable combination of regular popcorn and caramel corn invented by the guys one afternoon while seeing a movie at the Arclight, a fancy movie theater in Hollywood. According to Tony:
It is created by mixing equal parts regular popcorn (butter optional) with caramel corn. Once you’ve mixed, you have "mux." We recommend doing this actual mux-ing while still at the concession stand, using a cardboard drink tray as a mux basin (you have to ask for this). It’s less of a mess that way, and other people will see you being cool and combining popcorns.
So there you have it. Mux. What I didn't realize is that guests would take the muxing beyond just popcorn and caramel corn, adding puppy chow and Reese's Pieces to their popcorn bags and shaking it all up. I tried it. It was outstanding.
We planned on starting the movie shortly after sunset, so about 30 minutes before that, I took a quick tally of who wanted root beer floats and who wanted stout floats and Beth and I slipped inside to make them.
I used Henry Weinhard's root beer and Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout, which is the first stout I ever tasted in a float and remains my favorite for the job. I scooped vanilla ice cream from Trader Joe's into widemouth pint-size canning jars and we topped it off with about half a bottle of root beer or stout. Bright paper straws completed the floats...until we remembered that we forgot about spoons! Luckily Beth and Tony had a big stash of plastic cutlery kits from takeout food ("Tony always saves them!"), so while I scooped ice cream, she madly tore open the packages and plucked out the spoons. (In the end, I'm not even sure if we needed them.)
I thought people might be sugared out after all the snacking, but the floats were a huge success.
You may be wondering why our party prep list included finding movie trailers from 1982. Well, that's the year our feature presentation came out. Have you figured it out? The Reese's Pieces are another clue.
That's right, we watched E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Most of us hadn't seen it since we were little, and it seemed like just the right mix of adventure, heartwarming fun and '80s kid nostalgia.
After the sun went down, we brought out the remaining chairs and another big blanket and people started settling in, filling up on all the snacks and beverages they would need throughout the movie. Tony lit a fire in the portable fire pit he had tucked into a corner of the yard and the smell and crackle of the flames made the space even more cozy.
We left the string of lights on overhead while Rob screened the trailers he had chosen — The Thing, Tootsie and Poltergeist — but we switched them off as the feature presentation started, just like at a real movie theater, so there was only the flickering candles and the light bouncing off the screen onto a crowd of faces laughing, crying (seriously, do not revisit E.T. unless you are ready for some tears) and wishing for BMX bikes all over again.
It was just the party we had hoped for. And I can't wait to do it again.
Featured Party Resources
Faux Sheepskins, IKEA
- Throw Pillows from IKEA, our living rooms and borrowed from friends
- Vintage Wood Crates
- Vintage Blue Ball Jars
At the Table