LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Even as Oscar organizers on Friday unveiled Hugh Jackman as the host of their gala film awards, the prospect of a U.S. actors strike was casting a long shadow over whether Hollywood's big show would go on as usual.
The Academy Awards' February 22 date puts it directly in the path of a potential walkout by Screen Actors Guild members who vote next month on whether to give union leaders permission to call a strike in stalemated contract talks with major studios.
Movie making by the big studios has wound down since late June in anticipation of labor strife, compounding a general slowdown from the U.S. recession.
The tension has only been heightened by fatigue from a tumultuous 14-week Hollywood writers strike that ended in February and cost the Los Angeles area economy around $3 billion as production stopped on most prime-time TV shows.
"A strike, if one occurred, would be nothing short of horrible," said Ron Howard, the former actor and Oscar-winning director of "A Beautiful Mind" whose latest film, "Frost/Nixon," is considered a strong Oscar contender.
"The timing couldn't be worse," he said on Thursday.
Actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who on Thursday earned a Golden Globe nomination for his work in "Revolutionary Road," said strike concerns are hitting "everyone."
"It's really important that we come up with a solution," he said. "These are unheard-of times, and no one can predict what is going to happen" with the U.S. economy.
The Oscars, given out by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, are annually Hollywood's glitziest night.
Putting the show in jeopardy, however, was this week's announcement by SAG that strike authorization ballots will be mailed to its 120,000 members on January 2 and tallied on January 23, a full month before the Oscars.
That sequence of events raises the prospect of A-list stars boycotting the honors to avoid crossing their own union's picket lines -- or even carrying picket signs themselves.
The same dynamic came into play last January when a work stoppage by 10,500 Writers Guild of America members threw the awards season into disarray and caused the star-filled Golden Globe Awards to be replaced by a news conference.
Only 5.8 million TV viewers tuned-in, far below the Globes' typical 20 million audience. Broadcaster NBC lost an estimated $10 million to $15 million in advertising revenue.
The writers strike was settled a month later, sparing the Academy Awards and its network, ABC, a similar fate. But this time around, the Oscars are on the firing line and Australian actor Jackman, star of the "X-Men" movies as well as Broadway stage shows, may himself have to pull out.
"At this point, we are moving forward with all of our plans to do our show, and of course we are monitoring what is going on," said Academy spokeswoman Leslie Unger.
SAG leaders say they need a credible strike threat to wrest a better contract deal from the studios than the "final" offer management presented before talks collapsed on June 30.
They stress, however, that a "yes" vote does not automatically put a strike into effect, and it remains uncertain whether SAG can muster the support it needs -- 75 percent of those voting -- to pass its authorization.
Talks collapsed over issues that included how much actors would get paid for work on the Internet, and the financial impact of a possible strike on Hollywood remains unclear.
Most films slated for release in 2009 already have been shot, meaning the 2010 slate would see the brunt of a strike.
Some TV prime-time dramas and sitcoms will have completed production before SAG a work stoppage, though a walkout could hinder development of new series for Fall 2009.
Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Vicki Allen