Former Daily Nexus columnist and 2006 UCSB graduate Nick Pasto gained an edge in Hollywood yesterday, winning honorable mention at The Samuel Goldwyn Writing Awards for his screenplay, The White Zebra.

Of the 119 UC students who submitted an entry, Pasto was one of five finalists. The competition, which boasts such past winners as Francis Ford Coppola, has not seen a UCSB student reach this level in 20 years. Pasto wrote a column titled “Electric Sheep” for the Daily Nexus opinion page last school year.

The White Zebra, Pasto said, tells the story of a troubled chess prodigy trying to overcome his inner demons. Pasto likened his script to “A Beautiful Mind,” and said it frantically materialized over three weeks in the summer of 2005.

Pasto said he did not expect the screenplay – the second he has ever completed – to be so well received.

“I put forth my best effort and it was a bit of a surprise,” Pasto said.

He said he entered the piece in The Samuel Goldwyn Writing Award contest after hearing about it in a film studies class. MGM studios co-founder Samuel Goldwyn Sr. established the award in 1955 to encourage young filmmakers and writers to pursue the art.

The award, which provides a $15,000 first prize, awards honorable mentions of $1,000. A preliminary panel of judges whittles the field down to five scripts that they deem to be of professional quality.

While at UCSB, Pasto said, he majored in biopsychology and considered becoming a doctor, though he now feels this move was an obstacle to his ambitions as a writer.

Pasto said he gained much of his experience as an author by writing opinion pieces for the Daily Nexus. His humor column focused on such topics as stylish ways to die, addiction to “Star Trek,” and unlikely excuses for everyday situations.

He said he attempted to write a novel during his freshman year, but abandoned the idea in favor of screenplays.

“I just kind of stumbled upon screenwriting,” Pasto said. “I got a laptop with a screenwriting program and began playing with it.”

The White Zebra, like Pasto’s other works, was spawned from what he calls his “weird brain,” and his knack for identifying the absurd.

“Concept is huge; it’s half the battle,” Pasto said of the screenwriting process. “It’s important to collect tons of ideas.”

This year’s crop of Samuel Goldwyn Writing Award winners, which also included three UCLA students and one UC Berkeley student, had their scripts read by Leonard Maltin, a prominent film critic and historian; Lorne Michaels, creator and executive producer of “Saturday Night Live;” Eric Roth, former Academy Award winner and writer of “Forrest Gump;” and Leonard Stern, inventor of Mad Libs.

According to Rorri Feinstein, spokesperson for the Samuel Goldwyn Foundation, judges evaluate submissions based on creativity and ability to inspire.

“They look for imagination, emotional power and a rich authentic voice,” Feinstein said.

She added that the contest is “not looking for commercial or box office success, but is meant to help writers find their own voice.”

Pasto currently lives in Los Angeles and is working for a talent management firm while drafting some new scripts. He said he would ultimately like to operate his own movie studio.