The particular meaning of this word I have in mind is not what the OED terms “Films or movies collectively; films or movies considered as an industry, art form, or type of entertainment.” (E.g, “Bergman is a master of cinema.”) This has been in common use among arty types in the U.S. for a very long time.
Nor am I referring to a meaning that I believe common in Britain but which I haven’t heard in the U.S. It’s the equivalent of our “the movies” — “I love going to the cinema on a rainy afternoon:
Rather, I’m thinking of a cinema as a place where you go to watch movies. The OED quotes a headline from The Sun: “Top films coming to a cinema near you this summer.” As the dictionary notes, “Movie theatre [sic] is the more common term in North America.” That would be joined by “movie house” and, more recently, “multiplex.”
But I’ve been hearing this cinema-as-place a fair amount on National Public Radio, and a good number of uses show up when I search the NPR website. For example, this from a July 28 report on virus restrictions in the District of Columbia: “Theaters, cinemas and entertainment venues can apply for a waiver to host arts, entertainment or cultural events.” And, the day before, this from host Ari Shapiro on new drive-in movies: “Pop-up cinemas are, well, popping up.”
Meanwhile, New York Times movie reviews now note they will be playing at “virtual cinemas.”
Google Books Ngram Viewer confirms the sense of British predominance (though the term declined in popularity from about 1950-1980), with Americans starting to close the gap in the 1980s.
Looking just at American books, the data shows “cinema” more or less neck-and neck with “movie theater” since the ’80s. (The chart does somewhat overstate the popularity of “cinema” because it omits “theater” by itself; that is, if you were going to the movies with someone you might say, “I’ll meet you at the theater at 3.” For pretty obvious reasons, I didn’t include “a theater” in the search.)
The change makes sense. “Movie
theatre theater” and “movie house” are both kind of clunky, and “cinema” sounds classy, always a good thing. The only trouble is, who knows if there’ll even be cinemas anymore?