Michael Winner: How I made it in the movie business

Michael Winner began his career as a talent agent earning less than his secretary. It took almost 20 years to make his first million, but finds investing money more of a challenge than making it.

Michael Winner, 73, has a confession to make. "I used to steal money as a child." While boarding at St Christopher's in Hertfordshire, "I would go around the boys' pockets at school and steal all their money", says the film director, who has made a bigger name for himself in recent years as the caustic food critic of The Sunday Times.

He felt so guilty that he even tried to give it back years later, via a newspaper advert. But nobody replied. "Which shows you what idiots I was in school with. One boy wrote in who wasn't at the school at all. But at least he had a brain. 'Some arsehole is handing out money, I might as well have it.'"

Born into a Jewish family of Russian and Polish origin, Winner was brought up in one of three apartments in a Queen Anne-style mansion in London's Holland Park. "It was good but it was not grand."

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

His father became a successful property developer, but because of post-war austerity and his mother's chronic gambling his Bar Mitzvah doubled as a poker party he never had money lavished on him. Hence the stealing.

At 14 Winner made his first honest wage: five shillings for an interview with actor Max Bygraves in the Hornsey Journal. He went on to study law at Cambridge then got a job as a talent agent in 1955. The money wasn't great £10 a week, when his secretary earned £12.50. But he had the chance to meet stars such as Richard Attenborough, and he slowly sold a few scripts and worked his way into movies.

He wrote, produced and directed a series of 20- to 30-minute films for the cinema circuits. They didn't pay "anything remotely serious", he says. "If you got £100, you did very well." But it was a start.

By 1963 he was making full-length features including West 11 and, in 1967, The Jokers, starring Michael Crawford and Oliver Reed. "By that time I was making money." In 1966, United Artists gave him a "moderately good" six-picture deal. "It started at around £50,000 a picture and it rose in the early 1970s, when I was doing films with Charlie Bronson, to $300,000 to $400,000 a picture." By 1974, after the hit film Death Wish, he had £1m in the bank.

In some ways, investing his money has been a more difficult process than making it. In 1969, Winner invested £60,000 with a private bank, which put his cash into a Japanese wholesaler that fell from £5.80 a share to 12p. "I lost a great deal of money," he says.

But it taught him a valuable lesson. Financial advisers "are all total morons. They're dishonest, and only interested in getting their commission."

His most successful investments, it turns out, have been those he bought for fun, such as the original Winnie the Pooh illustrations and 178 saucy seaside postcards by Donald McGill. "I bought the originals for about £20 each and sold them two years ago. They grossed a quarter of a million." It's a small addition to the £35m he has stashed away in Guernsey.

So as a man with an enormous house, three Rolls-Royces and "all the toys I need", what's the secret of happiness? "It's not to seek perfection. You can want perfection, but don't be disappointed if life is not perfect. You must look at the overall situation, and if that is good, then keep smiling. Because nobody gives a shit if you don't."