FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) – There was a time when people had to drive to a theater to see the latest blockbusters. Moviegoers plopped down in seats and watched epic action flicks, tearjerking romance stories and sidesplitting comedies in a room packed full of noisy people – with crying kids, ringing cell phones and commercials before the feature began. The floors were sticky. Sometimes the picture was not in focus. Tickets were about $10 per person, not including snacks. And there was no ‘pause’ button for bathroom breaks.

Wait… you don’t still do that, do you?

Perhaps I am exaggerating just a bit. Theaters have certainly not reached their expiration date just yet, with domestic box office totals topping $10 billion the past two years on the heels of “Avatar” and “Toy Story 3.” But as technology continues to advance, movie studios are finding ways to deliver films directly to the core audience. And with the Academy Awards just days away, this trend has never been more evident.

When I was younger – and had the time to watch nearly every movie that was released – I recall the weeks leading up to the Oscars. Watching the five Best Picture nominees was hard work, not to mention the other films with nominations for Best Actor or Best Supporting Actress. Schedules had to be adjusted, personal responsibilities had to be pushed aside, all because I needed to drive an hour away from home to seek out limited release films like “Chocolat” or “Gosford Park” or “The Pianist.” It took time and determination, and this was only about 10 years ago.

A lot has changed since then.

For starters, the number of Best Picture nominees has doubled. It was hard enough to hunt down five Best Picture flicks, I can’t imagine keeping tabs on 10 movies. However, it is now easier than ever to catch up on those Oscar nominated movies thanks to digital distribution services – downloading the movies directly to a television, computer or even phone. Leading the charge on this front is Apple, through their iTunes Store and new Apple TV device.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs announces the release of a new Apple TV. (credit: Ryan Anson/AFP/Getty Images)

Once considered a mere “hobby” for Apple, the Apple TV has really developed into an interesting product for those who watch a lot of movies or television shows. The newest iteration of the device has no internal storage, relying on streaming video content over a high-speed internet connection. With a couple remote clicks, you can rent a movie – in either standard or high definition – for less than $5 in most cases. The box itself costs $99 and also allows you to play media from your computer – videos, music, photos – on your TV.

I say this not to sell you on the Apple TV, but to show you where the movie industry seems to be heading. As awards season kicked off in Hollywood earlier this year, a somewhat shocking announcement came from 20th Century Fox. For the first time, they were going to offer all Screen Actors Guild members – a number totaling nearly 100,000 people – access to “Black Swan,” “127 Hours” and “Conviction” via iTunes. Rather than watching the films on a special DVD, members would be able to check out the flicks (all of which were still in theaters at the time) through the Apple TV, on a computer, or on an iPad, iPhone or iPod touch.

Just the concept of these downloadable screeners, which allowed the films to be watched once within a 24 hour time frame, sparked a buzz through Hollywood. And likewise, a week later, other studios followed the novel trend. Paramount/Relativity offered “The Fighter” to SAG members. Focus offered “The Kids Are All Right.” Sony offered “The Social Network.” The Weinstein Company offered “The King’s Speech.”

Apple public relations manager Randi Wolfson said that this was not an initiative that was pushed by Apple employees. Rather, the movie studios themselves approached the iTunes team to work out the details of a digital distribution process exclusive to SAG members.

That’s right. The studios, on their own, decided to digitally distribute their films online, albeit to a very limited group. “While we would always prefer voters see films in a theater, we realize that is not always possible, so we wanted to make sure as many voters as possible have the opportunity to screen them,” explained Jim Gianopulos, Chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment. “iTunes enables us to make our films still in theatrical release available to a large number of important voters.”

Representatives for the various film studios said that the process was a success. The three Fox films were downloaded 58,311 times across roughly 21,000 SAG members. “The Fighter” was downloaded between 10,000 and 15,000 times. “The King’s Speech” was downloaded about 5,000 times. Download statistics for “The Social Network” and “The Kids Are All Right” are skewed because both films were available on DVD and blu-ray prior to the studio’s offerings.

This digital distribution process, despite the rather limited audience, is a giant leap into the next generation of moviewatching. When DVD was still a new technology, it took years for Hollywood to adopt the medium in awards screeners. Studio executives feared that digital copies on a DVD would facilitate film piracy. And perhaps that has been the case. Pirated copies of last year’s Best Picture winner, “The Hurt Locker,” has resulted in film producers suing thousands of people who illegally downloaded a copy of the movie. But the iTunes download method has built-in anti-piracy measures to prevent illegal copies of movies from leaking out.

The iTunes process also costs the movie studios less money. There are few resources that go into sending out download codes. Studios do not need to prepare packaging materials or the physical discs – little costs that can add up when spread across 100,000 copies. And, without these extra materials, the downloading process is environmentally friendly.

When this concept is extended outside of the limited industry folks, onto the consumer market, the entire moviewatching process could really be flipped on its head. The cost of seeing a newly released film would decrease. The overall experience – snack choices, start time, volume level, intermission — would become more customized to the individual viewer.

Although it might sound like a pipe dream, this future is closer than you might think. In a special iTunes area called ‘Advance Screening,’ a select number of independent film studios are already offering their movies to rent while they are still playing in theaters – or even before theatrical release. Right now, for example, the iTunes Store has “Peep World” (Sarah Silverman, Michael C. Hall, Rainn Wilson) from IFC Films available to rent prior to its March 25 theatrical release.

This page in iTunes highlights films still in theaters, or not even released in theaters yet. (credit: Apple)

In the past, iTunes offered cult sci-fi flick “Monsters” from Magnet Releasing and Joaquin Phoenix (mock?) documentary “I’m Still Here” from Magnolia Pictures before and during each film’s theatrical release date, respectively. And again, Wolfson said, it was the studios who approached Apple with this idea, as a way for their films to find more viewers… and keeping people like me from driving all over the city looking for a film that is in limited release.

In the (hopefully near) future, there exists a strong possibility that this ‘Advance Screening’ page will not be restricted to a handful of independent films. A world where Michael Bay’s latest “Transformers” movie can be downloaded to my iPhone seems more likely than a world where that “Transformers” movie is actually worth watching.

But first, the system still requires more growth. iTunes has a page listing this year’s Oscar nominated films, but Best Picture front-runner “The King’s Speech” is missing. Plus, four of the Best Picture nominees can’t be watched right now – they are simply listed as pre-orders. You won’t be able to see “True Grit” via iTunes until June 7, well after the awards are handed out. Even the Best Animated Feature category, with a scant three nominees, has one of them (“The Illusionist”) left out on iTunes.

A special page in iTunes spotlights the film nominated for an Academy Award. (credit: Apple)

But all of this represents a trend that could eventually take hold, and that’s more important than what films are available on iTunes this weekend. Through iTunes, the Apple TV and the various other iDevices, Apple has set itself up to be a leader in the future of moviewatching.

As Gianopulos said, nothing compares to the charm of an actual movie theater. But for families looking for cheap afternoon entertainment, sick patients restricted to bed rest, parents without a babysitter on Date Night, or insomniacs with a 2:00 a.m. movie craving… for blockbusters that are sold out, or limited release films that haven’t quite reached my town yet… for people without the time or energy to hunt down 10 Best Picture nominees before Oscar night… digital distribution is coming soon to a living room near you.