How one filmmaker used points and miles to make her world premiere debut at Tribeca

Jul 27, 2021

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Points and miles aren’t just for fun vacations; they can also be an extra resource for creatives to tap to get their projects to the finish line. And for independent filmmakers like Suzanne Joe Kai, every dollar saved goes a long way.

Kai, who wears many hats as a veteran journalist, film director and entrepreneur, is used to working with scrappy budgets while bringing her projects full circle.

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Fourteen years ago, Kai worked on “The Last Line,” a short film about passionate “Star Wars” fans who camped out for days to grab the perfect seat. During the festival run of that 28-minute film, she used her frequent flyer miles to attend a showing at Cannes’ Short Film Corner competition.

“The really cool thing is for years I basically saved my frequent flyer miles for special occasions like this,” said Kai. “So I used them and we flew first class (to France). My husband and I just had a great time and I say thank you, thank you, thank you, frequent flyer miles.”

It was that first experience using miles for her creative projects that inspired Kai to tap her miles again for another film years later.

For the last decade, Kai has been working on a documentary about the legendary music journalist Ben Fong-Torres. Fong-Torres interviewed some of the biggest names in music — from Elton John to Paul McCartney to Marvin Gaye — when he was a writer and editor at Rolling Stone magazine.

Journalist Ben Fong-Torres and director Suzanne Kai. (Photo by Leezel Tanglao/The Points Guy)

Using a combination of grants and her own money to produce the film, Kai stretched every dollar to make sure she accurately told Fong-Torres’ prolific journey as a master interviewer who captured the deeper stories behind the world’s most influential music stars.

The stash of hundreds of thousands of miles Kai collected over the years came in handy when it was time to complete her film, “Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres,” and prepare for its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in June 2021.

(Courtesy of Suzanne Kai)


“I would (use) frequent flyer miles for our director of photography to fly from New York to San Francisco a few times,” said Kai. “And then we also used some for our San Francisco crew to fly them to other parts of the country — like coming down to L.A. or to New York. They really come in handy.”

Related: The easiest way to top up your points and miles without spending a dime

Kai credits her miles with getting her crew where they needed to go to add the film’s final touches in the last few months before the film’s debut at Tribeca — and also helping them attend the festival screening.

“There are members of our crew that were so busy just making the deadline that they wanted to come and some were able to buy their own (tickets) and others could not,” Kai said. “So I said, ‘Let me dig into my frequent flyer account and see what I can do.’ And then we were able to get some of our fantastic crew to join because they just really wanted to come.”

Kai’s stash of miles also helped ensure social distancing as much as possible when her crew traveled during the pandemic. Thanks to her elite status, she was able to help get her crew better seats (which come with more space).

Tips for creatives on using points and miles

Kai used 400,000 miles she accumulated from American Airlines over the years to fly her crew to key locations during and after production, and she has a couple of tips on maximizing points and miles to help finish up projects such as films.

“I looked at 300,000 to 400,000 miles, so out of that pile, I was able to get whatever I needed. You know, if a trip was 10,000 or 35,000 miles, I could do it,” she said.

According to Kai, frequent flyer miles were the only way her crew was able to fly someone last minute to and from places like New York and San Francisco.

Kai also strategically used cards, such as The Platinum Card® from American Express, to transfer points earned through card spend to partners.

This method helped Kai save thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket travel costs.

Related: How to redeem American Express Membership Rewards for maximum value

A crucial factor to keep in mind is keeping up with changing policies and values in order to maximize points and miles.

“There are great deals out there. And they’re always changing, too. You kind of want to pay attention, especially if you need to buy camera gear or something like that,” she said.

Some of Kai’s film funders also joined in, tapping their points and miles to help with travel and hotel costs.

“It’s not just a filmmaker. One of our funders does that, so she has the cash, but she also has the frequent flyer miles,” she said.

Her funder was able to help house some of the crew using her elite hotel status.

Related: Your ultimate guide to family points pooling

Bottom line

Points and miles are a resource filmmakers and other creatives can use to complete a key shoot or crucial interview.

“It has immeasurably helped because it’s like peace of mind that if you don’t have the cash on hand, you can still figure out a creative way to use frequent flyer miles, get your crew out, and even yourself, to key locations,” Kai said. “It’s a huge benefit that, you know, some people maybe don’t realize. That’s why I’m smiling. Because if we have to go somewhere, we can.”

Featured photo by Leezel Tanglao/The Points Guy.

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