The CineAsia exhibition conference in Macau (Dec 9-11)got off to a surprisingly robust start, given the current global financial crisis, with a focus on India's growing exhibition market and the announcement of a funding deal for a new Chinese cinema chain.

Speakers including Tushar Dhingra, COO of Reliance-owned Big Cinemas,outlinedprospects in the Indian marketwhich is still massively under-screened although, due to multiplex development, box office is growing at an annual rate of around 14%.

Dhingra pointed to opportunities in digital cinema and alternative content such as the start-up IPL cricket league. While there are already around 2,000 e-cinema screens in India, Big Cinemas is in the process of rolling out 500 DCI-compliant D-cinema screens by 2010.

And while IPL is regardedby some local producersas a potential competitor to the movie business, Dhingra said: 'we're looking forward to seeing how this will impact and improve box office.'

In the following session, New York-listed real estate investor, Entertainment Properties Trust (EPR), announced that it is pumping $25m into start-up Hong Kong-based cinema operator APEX, which is building ten multiplexes across China (see separate story).

But while India and China still appear to be growing, the global financial meltdown and regional politics were still very much present on the first morning of the conference. Event organisers estimate that delegate numbers are down by around 12-13% this year due to the slowdown andpolitical protests in Thailand which recently shut down Bangkok's two airports.

Exhibitors from Thailand, one of the region's most developed multiplex markets, stayed away as they were worried that further protests would prevent them from returning home.

And while EPR CEO David Brain announced his company's China investments, he also outlined the dire state of global capital markets which is likely to hit new cinema developments and the shopping malls that house them.

Brain statedthat issuance of commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS) is down by 95% on 2007 levels. 'This is critical as CMBS is one of the major supply channels for investors and therefore for you...there is no way that banks and insurance companies can make up that difference.'

Conversion to 3D systems was also a recurring theme on CineAsia's opening day. China is leading the charge in the region by importing films outside the revenue-sharing quota on around 150 digital 3D screens. In contrast, India only has around five 3D-ready screens as local filmmakers and producers, which dominate the market, have not yet embraced the technology.

Screenings at the three-day conference include Fox's Australia, Warner Bros' Yes Man and Disney's Bolt in digital 3D, while local exhibitors will also get a peak at 3D footage from Paramount's Monsters Vs Aliens and Fox's Ice Age 3.

The conference ends with the awards ceremony on Thursday night. Honorees include:

DLP Cinema Marketing Achievement Award - Naoshi Yoda & T-Joy Co (Japan)

Distributor of the Year - Mark Zucker, Sony Pictures Releasing International

Exhibitor of the Year - Tushar Dhingra & BIG Cinemas

CineAsia Visionary Award - Gareth Wigan, Sony Pictures Entertainment

Kodak Filmmaker of the Year - McG

Asia-Pacific Copyright Enforcer Award - Jareuk Kaljareuk, President, Thai Film Federation