Action Figure Film Festival Survives Hasbro Threat, Returns to Denver

The G.I. Joe stop-motion animation festival returns to Denver this September
The G.I. Joe stop-motion animation festival returns to Denver this September Gio Toninelo
The Denver-based traveling event the Action Figure Film Festival, once known as the G.I. Joe Stop Motion Film Festival, will come out to play on Thursday, September 27, at the Bug Theatre.

Running on its thirteenth year, the international stop-motion film festival was born from founder Gio Toninelo's fascination with one of America’s favorite toys: G.I. Joe. Obsessed with the figurines since childhood, Toninelo carried his love of the action hero well into adulthood, amassing a treasure trove of more than a thousand G.I. Joes.

Turning his childhood love into an art form, Toninelo began staging and photographing his action figures for his web series Pond Patrol back in 2005. After a two-year run, the website garnered more than 60,000 views per month.

Toninelo cooked up the idea of creating a film festival that would showcase films made with G.I. Joe dolls. “I had this film festival idea. I wanted to show other filmmakers you don’t have to complicate your animation too much, as long as you have a good story," he says.

Thus began the G.I. Joe Action Film Festival.

click to enlarge Creator of the Action Figure Film Fest, Gio Toninelo. - GIO TONINELO
Creator of the Action Figure Film Fest, Gio Toninelo.
Gio Toninelo
Filmmakers from around the world submitted hundreds of G.I. Joe-themed works in various genres, from somber war dramas to slapstick. From the festivals' start in Denver, the event has toured six U.S. cities, Canada and Singapore. Toninelo’s own film "Pastrami on Rye" gained him notoriety, and even received shout-outs from the New York Times.

All of this attention soon caught the eye of multinational toy and board game company Hasbro.

“Initially, we were on good terms,” said Toninelo, who admits he only had a sort of informal agreement with the Hasbro executives. Even though talks were in the works for a more formal partnership, Toninelo received a cease-and-desist letter from the company in June. The added notoriety coupled with the outright gore and toilet humor in some of the films, Toninelo believes, caused the crackdown.

“I think they thought the films didn’t reflect what Hasbro thought of G.I. Joe,” he says.

click to enlarge Stills from a film featured in the Action Figure Film Fest. - GIO TONINELO
Stills from a film featured in the Action Figure Film Fest.
Gio Toninelo
Instead of facing off in the courts with a corporate giant, Toninelo decided to rename his event the Action Figure Festival Festival this past June. Though the name change shifts away from Toninelo’s favorite figurines, it also opens the festival to a new crop of characters.

“Combining these worlds — DC with Marvel, G.I. Joe with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — is very likely to happen in the generic film world. On this micro universe, everything goes.” Counting the name change as more of a win than a loss, Toninelo admits with a playful tone, “Changing the name kind of opens it all up; I can use all of their toys now.”

As for incorporating Marvel characters into his own films? Toninelo says it's a possibility. “I might combine some worlds, even though I am a die-hard G.I. Joe fan. Maybe I would get Ironman to join G.I. Joe."

The Action Figure Film Fest is set for 7:30 p.m. September 27 at the  Bug Theatre, 3654 Navajo Street. Get tickets, $15, here.
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